A lot has happened during Fleet Foxes’ six year hiatus — just ask former drummer Josh Tillman, who split from the band shortly after the band’s second LP, Helplessness Blues, with time to release three records of his signature brand of misanthropic folk rock before the remaining Fleet Foxes produced one. Not to say the other members of the band were lazy on their time off — lead singer Robin Pecknold was pursuing academia at Columbia University and guitarist Skyler Skjelset spent time touring with dream pop duo Beach House. Well finally, the Fleet Foxes long anticipated third album, Crack-Up, has come, and while this new LP certainly reflects a band that has changed since their last record, everything that defined the Fleet Foxes on their previous two albums — nonlinear song structure, reverb-soaked vocal harmonies, layered instrumentation — is all very much there. This album still certainly evokes the rustic respite of a backcountry sojourn, but it is also processed enough to remind you of the smartphone you rely on to take pictures when the landscape most precisely captivates you.
Crack-Up serves as loosely defined concept album that explores the theme that “no man is an island” to varying degrees. Not surprising, considering during frontman Robin Pecknold’s retreat from Fleet Foxes, he spent six months by himself backpacking in Nepal and Hawaii before moving alone into a small sixth floor apartment in Manhattan. It’s that kind of living-among-millions-but-still-feeling-lonely isolation that inspires lines like the first on the album – “I am all that I need, and I’ll be till I’m through” Pecknold eerily croons on “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” betraying some sense of malaise towards his solitude. His register is lower than he’s ever endeavored to sing in before, and the tuning guitar that opens the record, and also serves as Pecknold’s only instrumental support for the first moments of the song, is all but unsettling. Even from the first few seconds of Crack-Up, it is clear that this record is going to be a bit different. While Fleet Foxes have long sustained comparisons to the Beach Boys, on Crack Up, you are less likely to be reminded of the Wilsons’ shiny vocals than you are to be of Pet Sounds’ use of found sounds — Robin Pecknold is credited with playing a door on both “I Am All That I Need” and the eponymous final track, among samples of birds, lapping water, and even an a capella cover of “White Winter Hymnal”.
Moreover, in this newest LP, dissonance and intense swings in both instrumentation and lyrical content dominate the foreground. Pecknold recently joked on podcast Song Exploder that “I love dramatic shifts, it’s my jam,” perhaps recognizing the irony in explicitly stating something that has been so tacit in his work. Although incongruence is certainly expanded upon in the Fleet Foxes’ newest album, in no way is it a new trend for the band.
For instance, Crack-Up utilizes the backslash method of titling songs that was introduced in Helplessness Blues (“The Plains / Bitter Dancer”), essentially bridging into one cohesive whole two disparate songs that might be linked only by thematic content. Additionally, songs like “The Shrine / An Argument” on Helplessness Blues, which features a trumpet solo reminiscent of both Radiohead’s “National Anthem” and dying elephants, is as unnerving as anything you will hear on Crack Up.
Even still, the emphasis on dissonance and dedication to lyrical and sonic conflict on this newest record is unique among Fleet Foxes’ body of work, and admittedly might deter a fan upon first listen. However, with patience, each of these anxious moments resolves into something deeply rewarding, ultimately making Crack Up more satisfying than any of the Fleet Foxes’ previous efforts.
For instance, “I Am All That I Need” layers in vocal harmonies over Pecknold’s low roar before finally bursting into a lush, entrancing march, as if to emerge from the forest into a clearing. However, the repetitive nature of this one chord refrain, the lack of a backbeat and the enduring triplets, leaves the listener continuing to yearn for something more. Release comes around the 4:30 mark, with an assuring piano and Pecknold leaving behind his bandmates’ harmonies to recall “I was a child in the ivy then, I never knew you, you knew me” in a moment that is easily one of the most ethereal Fleet Foxes have created. “Cassius,” the following track, although more heartening musically than “I Am All that I Need”, holds a quiet tension that is not resolved until the following song, “– Naiads, Cassadies,” in which Pecknold poses pressing questions about the treatment of women over a straightforward beat. On “Another Ocean (January / June),” the focal point is clearly on the latter half of the song, where we see Fleet Foxes priming the listener for a rock crescendo that is arguably the most visceral moment on the album, with Pecknold chiding his past self for believing in some future panacea that does not exist.
What makes Crack-Up so compelling is this sense of scale — each song relies on the others in order to build tension, release it and build it again, like waves breaking on the shores of an ocean that Pecknold sings about throughout the record and that is depicted on the album cover. For Fleet Foxes to attempt something that subverts expectation so ambitiously demonstrates how grand the music must be in order to support the complexity of Pecknold’s emotional expression, as well as how much in their own league they are in the progressive folk genre. For as orchestral and sprawling as Helplessness Blues felt, Pecknold needed something even more bold, even more incongruent to describe his ennui and renaissance living in the world today, which speaks volumes more about the human experience in 2017 than any lofty political statement can.
I have been told that at recent live shows, Robin Pecknold has altered one of the final lines of the song “Helplessness Blues” from “if I had an orchard, I’d work ‘til I’m sore” to “no time for an orchard, with all that’s in store.” Who knows if he’s still searching for his purpose or not, or if there’s actually some optimism in realizing that the only thing that can heal us is our ability to accept that no one thing completely will. Regardless, if Crack-Up has taught me anything, it’s that there’s a hell of a lot to say even when we do feel purposeless.
Jesse Martens is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].