Album Review: Fleet Foxes - Crack Up
Whether intentional or not, Fleet Foxes and frontman Robin Pecknold have had a history of cultivating anticipation, and in turn, expectations with every release. Following a stylistic arc that hinted at a consistently increasing complexity, both lyrically and instrumentally, the Seattle-based indie folk band have returned from a 6-year-long hiatus to release their third studio album. There is little more that could have been done to set expectations so high, and many fans, including myself, have held their breaths, knowing that really, anything can happen. However, it is quickly apparent that Pecknold and the Foxes hold a high standard for themselves as well, and understand what it takes to build a solid discography. Beginning with the medieval-tinged acoustic melodies and fantastical lyrics of Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant in 2008, the band transitioned to a warmer, more intricately layered pastiche of sorts to ‘60s and ‘70s folk on Helplessness Blues, which they released in 2011. With a critically acclaimed EP and two LPs under their belts, how would the Fleet Foxes ever follow up these successes? The answer is by writing something completely different.
We now transition to 2017’s Crack-Up, a sprawling, incredibly ambitious junior album that pushes every front that the band have become known for. Perhaps we are even witnessing the birth of post-folk. In the years since Helplessness Blues, Pecknold has clearly tempered every aspect of his songwriting. Lyrically, the album feels like a follow-up to Helplessness Blues, an album which was intensively introspective in its message, seeking only an understanding of the purpose of one’s own self. Crack-Up, on the other hand, finds the narrator swallowed up in a world that is even more unsure of itself than they are. The 11 tracks vaguely hint at various sources of tumult that have come to leave a mark on American society, from the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the death of Muhammad Ali (“Cassius, -Naiads, Cassadies”), to the disillusionment and confusion of living under Trump’s America (“If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”). However, the lyrics derive strength not from preachy directness, but from ambiguity. These are but implied interpretations, as they are wrapped in the same allegorical sheath that cloaked the previous albums, albeit in a much more tempered, intelligent form. Judged upon lyrical content alone, Crack-Up is quickly distinguishable as the most mature entry yet. There have been so many recent examples of interesting and engaging songwriting being marred by subpar instrumentals with seemingly little attention given to them or poor production, one recent example being Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. Thankfully, Crack-Up sets itself apart from the rest of Fleet Foxes’ work, and indeed the entire indie folk scene altogether, with a wide swath of influences and styles, all woven properly into a cohesive set that does not come off as inconsistent or a hodge podge.
The opening track “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” utilizes quiet to loud dynamics, with the driving, heavily percussive rhythm (made with what seems to be a sample of a passing train) frequently dropping out to delicate, whispered acoustic verses, only to spring back almost schizophrenically. Something of a signature of this album, many of the songs have a sort of patchwork feel to them, with movements of wildly contrasting segments tied together. This contributes to the album being far less accessible than earlier releases, and will likely be a turnoff to some listeners. I however find this to be incredibly rewarding, and a strong point of the album. These shifts never come off as written haphazardly, but instead further imbue the tracks with an adventurous energy. From the eastern vibes and jazz breaks of “Mearcstapa,” the half minor key piano ballad half upbeat rocker “On Another Ocean (January / June)” and epic centerpiece “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” to the more self contained tracks like the glacial, ominously beautiful “Kept Woman,” the bitter, biting soul searching of “Fool’s Errand,” and the weirdly experimental ballad “I Should See Memphis,” not a weak track is to be found. All hints of instrumental nostalgia have been jettisoned in favor of a far more eclectic, urgent sound, with experimental breaks, string quartet melodies, brass backing, and even electronic flourishes, all in very good taste. The album concludes on the orgasmic title track with a huge wall of sound, breaking down into a noir-esque horn arrangement under multitracked vocals, overwhelming the listener as if dividing tides. The final sounds of the record are the hurried footsteps of Pecknold running out of the studio. Whether he is fleeing or pursuing something is up to the listener.
Crack-Up will likely serve as Fleet Foxes’ most divisive, polarizing release. Some will love it for its unpredictable, borderline experimental songwriting and powerfully refined lyrics. Others will resent it for its at times cold obtuseness, finding it either boring or jarring, disappointed that it did not follow more closely in the footsteps of its preceding albums. In essence, if you are looking for more songs in the vein of “White Winter Hymnal,” “Mykonos,” or “Blue Ridge Mountains,” you will be disappointed. If you are interested in the path the band began following with tracks like “The Shrine / An Argument” on Helplessness Blues, then this may be for you. This album is not meant to be heard once, it is a grower that requires repeated listens for it to really resonate with you. And trust me, it is definitely worth giving a chance. Personally, I find Crack-Up to be the band’s greatest success yet. Long ago did the comparisons to Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Beach Boys become grating, and I believe it is with this album that not only have Fleet Foxes stepped out of the shadow of their predecessors, but have in some ways even surpassed them. Crack-Up is a testament to the fact that the genre of folk still has plenty of room to evolve, and even bleed into other genres. Will this album ever manage to beat out Helplessness Blues in my mind? Tough call. That album already has a 6 year head start. My opinions will likely change in the coming years, as I suspect the public’s will as well. I have a feeling that decades down the line, Crack-Up will be regarded as a monumental musical and artistic achievement, and one of the finest folk rock albums ever crafted.