Title: Crack-Up
Artist: Fleet Foxes
4.5/5 stars
Released: 16/06/17
Reviewed by: RUBEN MITA

 

Fleet Foxes’ long-awaited third album takes its title from The Crack-Up, a 1936 psychological essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald that begins “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.” The name is fitting for an album that breaks down the band’s musical language to its pure sonic qualities, before expanding them into grander and more ambitious pieces than ever before. It’s been six years since their last studio outing Helplessness Blues, and central creative force Robin Pecknold clearly knows that’s too long a wait for a third lap around the same track, or more likely campfire. This is the group’s prog chapter, navigating extreme dynamic leaps, timing changes, lengthy textural sections and slowly evolving ideas, resulting in an album of unanswered questions that nevertheless stands as their most breathtaking work to date.

The album begins like a whisper, with Pecknold singing breathily in his rarely used lower range, before the band launch suddenly into a jubilant one-note stomp. The song, a multi-movement suite of dynamic leaps, orchestral-scale instrumentation and sections of field recordings, lays out the formula for much of the album. After four minutes of frenetic energy and the fourth or fifth sudden descent into quiet, the song emerges into a soaring melodic tune as the band steps out into the sunlight. It’s a striking opening to a self-consciously ambitious album.

What such frequent mid-song changes do is blur the boundaries between the eleven songs, to the benefit of the album as a whole. Gone is the stomp-happy strumming of Helplessness Blues and Blue Ridge Mountains, as are the campfire hooks of their earliest work. Despite these changes, this still sounds like Fleet Foxes and no one else, abound with golden harmonies and intricate layers of acoustic instrumentation. The group remain unparallelled in modern folk music for their ear for texture and melody, and their combination of so many instrumental parts in a way that is complex but sharply focused and never cluttered. This perfectionism is perhaps their strongest asset. While there is nothing here as immediately arresting as the title track from Helplessness Blues for instance, a few repeat listens reveal an album just as satisfying. Where the songs have dissolved, the pure sonic properties of their music triumph.

The vocalist’s lower register, barely heard on their previous work, makes several appearances here to great effect, most notably in the penultimate I Should See Memphis, a geographically diverse song that touches cryptically on American Civil War battles, classical Roman and Egyptian references, and Democratic Republic Of Congo cities. Ex-drummer Josh Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) has singled out this track from his once-bandmates as a “stunner,” and his judgement is on point.

The song is a prime example of the convoluted lyrical approach most of the album takes. It speaks volumes that, since the release, Pecknold has taken to the lyric analysis website Genius to add his own notes to leading single Third of May / Ōdaigahara, in ways which will make you simultaneously cringe and want to listen to the track again. Lines of four words are explained in depth, homophones are pointed out, and quadruple-meanings abound. The title itself is a triple-reference to the release date of their last album, the birthday of band member Skyler Skjelset, and the famous Goya painting of the same name. You get the idea. He recently dismissed the lyrics on their first album as “pure RPG fantasy,” and indeed you won’t find songs about peasants or would-be christmas carols on this one. The lyrics, like the music, represent a cracking up and shattering of ideas. Pecknold doesn’t try to escape the unabashed sincerity of folk music that many like Father John Misty have distanced themselves from with genre-mangling satire in the time since the band embarked on their hiatus of sorts. Instead he stretches it as far as it will go.

Of course the lasting impact of Third of May is in its melodic beauty and propulsive rhythm. The first half is the closest Crack Up comes to the simpler approach of their first album, while the second half is the most successful of their grand textural suites, ending with two minutes of rhythmless fluttering guitar and piano. It is an almost tangible sound, in the middle of a stunningly lushly produced album packed with many other moments of sonic pleasure (just listen to the moment the drums come in in Mearcstapa.)  

Admittedly the album suffers a slight slump towards the end. On Another Ocean (January / June) comes off as Fleet-Foxes-by-numbers, and the closing title-track is similarly nondescript in its grandiosity, though lyrically it is the album’s strongest portrait of “post election confusion” in the writer’s words: “I can tell you’ve cracked like a china plate.”

This is a reminder that this album is in no way isolated from the current political climate. The gorgeous Cassius, – is a memoir of Pecknold’s participation in 2016 protests over the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. “I walked home alone, no words to say” is a deceptively powerful line. As Pecknold recently commented, “How is an album title like Crack-Up not obviously a reference to our current political climate as much as it is a reference to any personal psychology?

This quote comes from a lengthy response the singer wrote in the comments section of Stereogum’s mixed review, in which he speaks of his confliction as a “straight White Male artist who still desires to make relevant art” when such a voice is the last he is “actively looking to.” Fear not, Robin. Crack-Up may not have all the answers, nor be expected to, but in an attempt to create, as Pecknold puts it, “something experientially or aesthetically moving, a reprieve,” the group have succeeded grandly. At times stubbornly demanding, this is their first album that forces the listener to come to Fleet Foxes rather than delivering Fleet Foxes to them, and those who are invested enough to make that journey will find a world of immense detail and beauty waiting.

 

Standout Tracks: Third of May / Ōdaigahara, I Should See Memphis, Kept Woman, Cassius, -, Mearcstapa, I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar

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