Release Date: Jun 16, 2017
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Folk
Fleet Foxes get even more ambitious, and in the process establish themselves as possibly the greatest indie-folk act of the decade. Where Fleet Foxes left off in 2011, Helplessness Blues saw Pecknold and company looking inward for answers to an increasingly uncertain world - one that felt like it was beginning to crumble around them. At times, the lyrics turned out to be quite foretelling; such as in the confessional title track when Pecknold lamented his place in this world (" What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do") and found himself following up that record's astounding success by putting the band on hold and diving into academia, enrolling in four years of twentieth century art and literature studies.
It's an oversimplification, sure, but you could say that Fleet Foxes singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold went the Rivers Cuomo route after the band's 2011 album Helplessness Blues, retreating from the music business and enrolling at Columbia University. Whether or not his recent studies have informed his latest music is hard to say—Fleet Foxes have always been a brainy bunch, complete with arcane historical and philosophical references—but they certainly haven't retreated from those tendencies on their new album, Crack-Up. Complete with a title cribbed from a 1936 collection of essays from F.
Following Fleet Foxes' transcendence into folk rock royalty with 2008's Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes, followed by 2011's Helplessness Blues, the then Seattle based sextet suddenly vanished into thin air. Front man Robin Pecknold fell off the grid, subsequently failing to release the follow up to Helplessness Blues, then-drummer Josh Tillman ditched the backwood drum patterns for a God-like solo career as Father John Misty, mandolinist/guitarist Skye Skjelset formed his own identity with his self-promoted label Skyler Skjelset Music, and the other remaining band members went on to playing and recording with dozens of other projects and bands. As Fleet Foxes had suddenly been ripped from every indie-lover's brain, Pecknold embarked on a collegiate journey at Columbia University in New York City.
It seems fairly incredible that we are almost a decade removed from when Fleet Foxes, along with Bon Iver and Grizzly Bear, made our millennial generation fall in love with folk music, but here we are. It seemed at the end of the previous decade, you couldn't move for hype blogs, tv spots or festival appearances bigging up Fleet Foxes, For Emma, Forever Ago or Veckatimest respectively, as the so-called 'freak folk' moment had its day in the sun. Fleet Foxes' appeal over most was perhaps their ambition.
Robin Pecknold's Fleet Foxes are back with another gorgeous, unique album that balances profundity and earnestness. The band's sonic expansion is evident early on. "I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar" begins with detuned acoustic guitar and the lowest singing heard yet from Pecknold, before blooming into the lush strums and layered vocals that characterize their sound; another guitar articulates a 2/3 polyrhythm with a repeated note, adding tasteful tension. The track ends with watery paddling sounds, and a crowd singing the "ooh" melody from 2008 track "White Winter Hymnal." "Cassius" begins with that same paddling sound and a perhaps electronically triggered vocal sample.
In the six years since Fleet Foxes' last album, their former drummer has eclipsed them in the public eye by embracing a flamboyant persona fluent in sex, drugs, self-awareness, and sarcasm, like a not-so-subtle referendum on his previous gig. None of Josh Tillman's jokes have been crueler than the unmistakable alliteration embedded in the title of the first Father John Misty album: Fear Fun. Considering the lengths folkies like Tillman, Justin Vernon, and Marcus Mumford have gone to ensure their beards no longer speak on their behalf, it's all the more amazing that Robin Pecknold hasn't tried to counteract the earnest, unglamorous perception of him and Fleet Foxes.
When Fleet Foxes first appeared on the music scene, it was like they'd walked out of their own time and space and arrived in 2008 fully formed. While indie rock was busily exploring the extent of shoegaze and reverb-soaked post-punk (Beach House and Crystal Stilts made plenty of year-end lists), along came this band of bearded weirdos who sounded like they'd been raised on Van Dyke Parks, the deepest cuts of '70s folk-rock, a hefty helping of Bob Dylan (the acoustic version) and CSNY. They didn't sound like much else that was popular, but co-signed by Sub Pop, they became an indie juggernaut.
It was perfectly reasonable to think we would never get another Fleet Foxes album. After the band's rustic self-titled debut took off unexpectedly in 2008 (eventually earning a Gold record for mega-indie label Sub Pop), frontman and core creative force Robin Pecknold poured himself fully into making its excellent follow-up, 2011's Helplessness Blues. Then, Fleet Foxes toured the world for a while, a process that seemed to take a toll on the band.
T he third Fleet Foxes album arrives after a six-year hiatus and lands beard-first into the debate on the role of the artist in 2017: to reflect the complex real-world landscape or to make an oblique and beautiful piece of art? Robin Pecknold and his fellow Foxes have opted more for the second option for the follow-up to Helplessness Blues. As Pecknold tells it, Crack-Up does not lack engagement with the outside world: Cassius is about the violent deaths of young black men, as well as Muhammad Ali's. But these 11 tracks are immersive, shifting creations, retaining the heavenly signature harmonies of FF's previous work, while further expanding the band's sound.
Crack-Up might very well be the best Fleet Foxes record to date. It is just that though, a Fleet Foxes record. Talk of experimentation and expansion in epics lasting up to 9 minutes is there, but barely. There's evidence of the band looking further afield than their usual American indie-folk, country and blues leanings in fleeting moments like the subtle faded sample of Etheopian Jazz legend Mulatu Astatke on 'On Another Ocean' or in the expansive, mystical and broken up 'Third of May / Odaigahara' but they make a fraction of the record.
Following a lengthy hiatus and some apparent soul-searching from bandleader Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes aim for dramatic reinvention on their cerebral third LP, Crack-Up. When they debuted in 2008, they were widely designated as torchbearers of the burgeoning indie folk movement, but there was always an academic element to the Seattle band's work that vaulted them into a class of their own. Their exultant vocal harmonies rose like a misty hybrid of the Beach Boys and Steeleye Span and their complex chamber pop arrangements recalled the autumnal splendor of the Zombies paired with the melodic complexity of early Yes.
In September 2016, Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold had a dilemma. While mocking up meticulous designs for 'Crack-Up', the Seattle band's first album in six years, he discovered fellow choral indie lot Local Natives had been using the same font as him. "What would u do?" he asked fans on Instagram. "Would u hold fast or find a new font?" He stood firm with SimSun, but other than its typeface nothing about 'Crack-Up' is ordinary.
For Fleet Foxes, the benefit of a stupendously well-defined core sound is the scope it affords for exploration. While the Seattle band's 2008 debut spliced West Coast folk-rock and medieval story-songs for ecstatic communal consumption, 2011's deep, dense Helplessness Blues redirected that message toward themes of self-doubt painlessly, their levitating harmonies and melodies sufficiently fully formed to take any strain. Six years on, Crack-Up is deeper, richer and more literate (starting with the title's F Scott Fitzgerald debt), overflowing with ideas and destabilising tonal shifts.
Six years after the late aughts folk-rock juggernauts released Helplessness Blues, the highly anticipated follow up to their pioneering debut, 2008's Fleet Foxes, the Seattle-based quintet is back with their third album, Crack-Up. At eleven songs and nearly an hour long, the band's latest work is both their most challenging and their most rewarding. Crack-Up is, first and foremost, an intricately woven unified whole, with songs bleeding into one another and lyrical themes recurring throughout.
It almost seemed like Fleet Foxes weren't going to return. Their first show of 2017 came five years and four months after their last, or four months longer than LCD Soundystem's "breakup." Those five years were filled with self-discovery, as Robin Pecknold withdrew from the band to attend Columbia University. When we last left Pecknold, the promise of the early Obama years was beginning to fade, with the slow post-recession recovery giving birth to the Occupy movement.
Let's just say Fleet Foxes are emphasizing the "Y" in CSNY. The folk-rock band's long-awaited latest sort of feels like Neil Young's Buffalo Springfield collage-dream opus "Broken Arrow" if it lasted a whole album. Their sound is still rooted in the lush, beardly harmonies and sky-bound strumming that made their first two LPs coffee-shop staples. But they've upped their prog ambitions - tracks wash together, song titles abound with opaque punctuation, and the sweeping melodies often wander into moody places, away from the safety of the campfire.
On 2011's Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold explored the existential angst of feeling adrift, at one point confronting the naïveté of a childhood spent believing he was a unique “snowflake,” a term that's taken on a far more pejorative hue in the six years since the last Fleet Foxes album. When Pecknold sings, “You're not a gift/You know you're not a flower” on the Seattle indie folk band's long-awaited third album, Crack-Up, it's a further refutation of youthful illusions, delivered with the resolution of a wiser, if perhaps world-wearier, man who's increasingly unafraid to confront the bleaker aspects of the human condition. Pecknold titled the album after an essay by F.
It’s a bizarre sensation: listening to something that's clearly had a lot of time, love and attention poured into it, something obviously impressive in scale and ambition, made by artists admirably trying to push their sound forward - and it leaving you completely unmoved. But so it is with the first four tracks on Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes' third LP and their first in six years. Opener I Am All I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar is as fragmented as its title suggests: over the course of its six minutes, we get a grainy intro with grumbly male and female vocals, majestic trademark harmonies, acoustics played with the attack of electrics, an interlude that sounds like Simon & Garfunkel, backwards guitar, surging strings, sloshing water, and a choir of schoolchildren singing and clapping hands.
No matter how many dashes and parentheses Robin Pecknold inserts into his song titles, or how many Japanese mountains and medieval British monsters loom behind his lyrics, a Fleet Foxes record will pretty much always sound like Fleet Foxes. The opening minutes of Crack-Up, the band's third album and first in six years, are instructive in this regard. First, we hear the queasy shifting pitches of a tape machine starting up and finding its speed, then some quietly fingerpicked guitar.
In 1936, Esquire magazine published an essay by F Scott Fitzgerald, who was approaching 40 (and who would be dead a little more than four years later). 'The Crack-Up' reported Fitzgerald's struggles with fame, relationships and the passing of time. The ruthless resolution he came to, to preserve his life and sanity, was to dehumanise the writer, to be a working shell devoted to the written word and with no emotional ties to any other person.
After a five-year hiatus caused by the same internal fractures that fired Father John Misty off into the stratosphere, Fleet Foxes have returned with the aptly named 'Crack-Up'. There's a new world weariness to Robin Pecknold's voice as it traces tails of separation, longing and self-doubt, often in a newfound baritone that heavily resembles the lived-in growl of Leonard Cohen. Fragile yet shining with a new-found purpose, 'Crack-Up' genuinely does sound like a broken band piecing themselves back together again.
"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," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. That line comes from a collection of essays titled "The Crack-Up," from which Fleet Foxes took the title of its latest album. Fleet Foxes founder Robin Pecknold finds opposed ideas everywhere he looks these days, and his songs brim with dense, deep anxieties.
Fleet Foxes live in a narrow meadow. They are revivalist folk without paying obvious homage to the departed like Beck with Sea Change and Morning Phase. They constantly use acoustic guitar without floundering in strum pattern purgatory like Mumford and Sons. They go for pop and folk, not in equal measure but in equal ambition and don’t fall into self-parody like The Lumineers.