It’s been a long six years of relative radio silence from Fleet Foxes since the tour for their sophomore effort, Helplessness Blues, wrapped up in 2011. Drummer Josh Tillman left the band clutching handfuls of American Spirits and several flavours of strong hallucinogens to fly into the heart of the sun atop a winged unicorn, being dramatically reborn in a burst of light as Father John Misty. In contrast to Tillman’s departure and subsequent cosmic trajectory, the band’s frontman Robin Pecknold quietly absconded to Colombia University to read English in 2013, somehow finding the time around his studies to help write an original score for the Broadway play, Wyoming.
Fleet Foxes began transmitting again earlier this year with a nine minute lead single, which I’d say is a pretty ballsy move. However, it’s not one that is necessarily unexpected for a band that have increasingly populated their albums with sumptuous six to eight minute suites. Crack-Up in its entirety feels like this songwriting theme developed further. It is much broader and encompassing in scope, and feels more adventurous than the band’s previous material; filled with neat, interesting and effectively diverting instrumental, vocal, and production flourishes.
The first track, I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, is a rather fitting mission statement and shows how far their songwriting has come in the last six years. The song flows and shifts almost as if it has a life of its own, and Pecknold populates it with arresting drops to his lower register. The instrumentation is grand and the tempo pulsing, strongly reminiscent of the storm captured on film by Hiroshi Hamaya that is used as the album’s cover. Five minutes in, the build up to a crashing instrumental finale is precipitated by a few seconds of Pecknold singing the hook acapella, dry recorded while opening a door and climbing some stairs. It’s an unusual little flourish, particularly for Fleet Foxes, but it is pulled off effortlessly and doesn’t feel out of place in the context of the song or in the album as a whole – a testament to the bold development in their sound.
As oceanic as Crack-Up feels throughout, it is also full of contrast. The record is named for a collection of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald that explore a decline in the writer’s mental health, and in which he states “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This theme of contrasting ideas and the conflict between them is continued throughout the record – Pecknold sings on Cassius that “fire can’t doubt its heat, water can’t doubt its power”, and the song On Another Ocean (January / June) is explicitly constructed around the difference between the two movements of January and June – January more muted, stripped back and bleaker, and June a quite triumphant sounding return to the grandiose, pelagic instrumentation heard earlier in the record, before ending abruptly on a jazz sample.
In a May 2016 interview with Pitchfork, Pecknold stated that over the past six years of hiatus he has “got some academic pretensions out of my system that I won’t be inflicting upon the listening public thru (sic) song.” However, aside from the album title, the record appears to be full of references one might consider pretentious – the song Cassius is named after a conspirator against Julius Caesar, Naiads are classical water nymphs and Mearcstapa is a Middle English word used to describe the monster Grendel in Beowulf. Maybe Pecknold doesn’t think these are academic pretensions, and neither do I – they do not intrude, and help succinctly and cerebrally support the album’s tone. It also sounds very much like he got his money’s worth from his degree, which is always good to see.
This is all still Fleet Foxes – the harmonies, the instrumentation and the lyricism all nicely evoke their earlier work. However, Crack-Up is undeniably new and quite fresh – the stomping, pulsing tempos and very grand arrangements carry the core of traditional Fleet Foxes to some really majestic places. Crack-Up is brooding, windswept and very stormy in places; delicate, gentle and calming in others. The songs flow and shift almost as if they have a life of their own, and demand close attention. It stays for as long as it needs to, it achieves all it sets out to do, and there’s not much else to say, really.