A Realized Return
Much has been said and much more will be decreed about the return of Fleet Foxes more than five years after their rather poignant Helplessness Blues. We will write about how they captured the feelings of a generation staring down the cliffs of massive societal upheavals, how their mellow-yet-massive sound encapsulated a trendy aesthetic, and about, how now, with years removed and lives lived, things are different.
This is one of the best and worst things about Crack-Up. It’s a little sad that this music will be placed in the shadow of Helplessness Blues, and yet it gives eager listeners plenty of material to dive into in hopes of spotting the differences and developments. There’s this massive question for successful musicians: how does one follow up something that was widely revered? Lead singer and songwriter of Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold, has given us a polished answer to that question: take your time, and play to your strengths.
Crack-Up is an inward album, one that mulls internal strife and stresses more so than it does those of the world, but it does so with the same mindful, meditative sweeping sensibilities that gave the band their signature sound. While Fleet Foxes initially may have been an asterisk on the late aughts and early ’10s as a band suitable for hipster boys in knit caps and lovely girls in twee dresses, their work always had a quality of exploration beyond their banjo-touting counterparts. On Crack-Up, this is obvious, with a musical language that includes heaving, expansive swells, bountiful melodies and rich, layered strings.
The songs here are steeped in meaning and layers. Some bear complicated names, some have multiple movements with instruments dropping in and out while the tempo and melody change from one mode to the next. Album opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” is a good example of this — bringing together so many sounds in one, speeding up, slowing down, whispering low and belting high.
“Cassius” is a peaceful take that turns into a groovy, tambourine-fueled meditation in “—Naiads, Cassadies.” Pecknold retains his storytelling capabilities with vivid descriptions. “Who stole the life from you / who turned you so against you / who was the thief who shaved your teeth accepting just virtue?” he sings, questioning and conversing.
Fleet Foxes have a way of making instruments sound softer and fuller than they do in the hands of others. In “Kept Woman,” a muted piano melody introduces us to a journey later highlighted by strings, while the first single, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” brings back the basic but determined acoustic strumming that is so often at the backbone of their songs. It makes sense why Fleet Foxes chose to lead with this track, as it is sounds embedded in their past work while displaying Crack-Up’s more amorphous, exotic flair. Pecknold does not seem terribly interested in playing by the rules; nothing about this album is particularly rebellious, but it also isn’t particularly conventional.
It’s refreshing to realize the sound Pecknold is chasing and has fashioned wasn’t borne of 2010 hipster trends, but is rooted in his own musical leanings — wide landscapes with layered soft tones, layer upon layer of rhythms, chaos turned comforting. His easily identifiable if somewhat throaty vocals add an otherworldliness. Yet, they are another reason why Crack-Up could be introduced to music fans of any time and era, separate from any associated trends, and they might appreciate it for its creative beauty.
The midway point of the album, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” is as sweet as this band get, a ballad with the titular hook delivered in perfect harmony that showcases how moving Fleet Foxes can (still) be. Another highlight is “On Another Ocean (January / June),” which plays around with Pecknold’s higher range and brighter chord progressions than their vocabulary typically allows.
“Fool’s Errand” has the closet thing there might be to a hook, but it’s delivered in a familiar fashion. There’s a yearning and desperation bubbling throughout this album that begins to boil here, near the album’s close, with a soaring chorus, rumbling beats and a lonely piano outro.
When Crack-Up finally reaches its titular end, listeners are left gratified by all the sounds and sights of the past 56 minutes. True, they may not be completely upended like they were by the work of Helplessness Blues, but there’s something authentic and realized enough going on in here that it might touch more people, or expand the band’s audience by breaking free of a trend and time. This music, separate and apart from its predecessors, is ideal for inspiration, exploration, progression and adventure — even within the boundaries of one’s own mind.