With Josh Tillman mocking the world, as it spirals into a hellfire of political myopia, societal fractures and existential monotony, on his latest album under his recording alias of Father John Misty, Pure Comedy, it’s all too fitting that the title of Fleet Foxes’ first record since Tillman’s departure, Crack-Up, shares similar tragicomedic overtones. The Seattle-spun indie folk outfit’s previous album, Helplessness Blues, also dealt with the anxieties of the modern world and, despite being six years old at this point, it would seem that it acted as the starting point for Fleet Foxes’ newest endeavour. Indeed, Crack-Up is somewhat of a spiritual successor to Helplessness Blues, although the approach employed by frontman Robin Pecknold in engaging with, and making sense of, the feeling of being adrift and alone amidst the current age is, in part, even more meditative, likely as a result of the time spent by the singer studying at one of Columbia University’s undergraduate colleges between the recordings of these two releases, whilst the band were on a hiatus. At the same time, however, both lyrically and musically, Fleet Foxes’ third album is the five-piece’s most disjointed and, at times, rambling release, as is best demonstrated by the songs in the tracklisting, such as the opening track and the lead single, that play out more so as medleys than as wholly cohesive and focussed pieces. However, this is not to say that Crack-Up is particularly limited in the extent to which it potently translates Pecknold’s social and existential apprehensions, instead it plays to a rather different territory from Helplessness Blues in both principle and execution, meaning that, once the listener overcomes the initial bewilderment arising from the record’s structure, it’s easy to grasp just how compelling these grandiose compositions and quiet introspections can be. Crack-Up may be analogous to Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy in its overarching concept and angle on anxiety, but the underlying attitudes and thematic frameworks of the two albums are vastly different. Whereas Tillman’s approach saw his thoughts laid out clearly, coherently and comprehensively across the course of 13 pinpointed harangues, Fleet Foxes’ latest undertaking is much more loose, not solely regarding Pecknold’s verbalisations of his concerns with the world as it cracks and crumbles around him, but also in the case of the cavernous compositions and arrangements, which maintain a feeling of both grandeur and flexibility. There is the odd moment wherein the band’s relatively unconstrained approach works against them, with certain moments being perhaps a bit too dishevelled or dissolute for their own good, but overall, Crack-Up is a fantastically focussed folk record, even in spite of its expansive and fluid nature.
Indeed, with Fleet Foxes’ once celebrated adroitness for finely-crafting their compositions around leitmotifs on their first two albums, Crack-Up can certainly be a confusing change of pace upon first listen, and the fact that the group chose to open the record with I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, one of its most tortuous tracks, gives the impression that this is a deliberate decision on their part. Likewise, as a collective composition, internal conflict seems to be a recurrent theme across the song, which helps make sense of the track’s meandering structure. The way in which the opening passage, in which the fractured finger-picking of a barely in-tune guitar supports a hushed, slightly uncoordinated vocal duet, sees an uncharacteristically loud violin lead into an abrupt eruption of swirling acoustic guitars and layered stringed instruments set against a droning backdrop mirrors the inner contentions of the lyrics. Whereas the original verse proclaimed a message of self-sufficiency and being better off without the song’s addressee, the subsequent stanza sees the narrator — self-aware that they are putting this person on a pedestal — admit to being too weak to be alone. With the remainder of the song suddenly shifting back and forth between these sections, the piece genuinely takes the form of an argument, with both sides competing to have their voices heard, and just how abrupt and abrasive these tone shifts are cogently reinforces this. Indeed, whilst the constant pivoting between these two timbres is noticeably jarring at first, this seems to be precisely the point, and the fact that later on in the tracklisting, Fleet Foxes prove themselves to be capable of executing sudden compositional U-turns with far more grace, most notably on On Another Ocean (January / June), demonstrates that the precipitous one-eighties of I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar are designed for a confounding impact.
In the case of On Another Ocean (January / June), the initial, haunting, piano-driven balladry that fortifies Pecknold’s fluttering, folksy crooning, gives way, amidst a swelling discordance of rattling, chopped up percussion, to a more steady and sluggish groove, paved by light guitar licks and a luscious horn arrangement, allowing the original build up of tension to find an immensely gratifying release. Given this stark contrast of the piece’s first and second movements, it is somewhat of a shame that On Another Ocean (January / June) doesn’t feature the same strong dualities in its lyrics compared to I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, with the narrator’s disposition during the ‘June’ section of the song only being slightly sunnier than the “cold and dim” ‘January’ passage. Fortunately, however, many of Pecknold’s most impressive lyrical efforts appear on the most ambitious compositions from Crack-Up. In particular, the nine-minute lead single from the record, Third of May / Ōdaigahara, is a progressive folk epic that matches an indulgent, yet tasteful, instrumental arrangement with an endearing tribute by Pecknold to his fellow bandmate, Skyler Skjelset. The highs of the track’s timbre see Pecknold’s impassioned vocals soar above the refined backdrop of luxurious string arrangements, as the band holds down the fort, occasionally breaking down into discord, giving way to the tranquil passages of introspection, as the vocalist reaches into his lower register and sings with a deep, gravelly quality evocative of folk singers like Leonard Cohen. Not all of Pecknold’s lyrical endeavours across Crack-Up are quite as compelling, with there being an impressive pool of interesting ideas, although not all are followed through with the same conceptual focus. The nymphean imagery of – Naiads, Cassadies, for example, which seeks to explore the relationship between men and women — particularly the subjugation of women by men — in an especially esoteric manner, is undoubtedly an enthralling concept, but the final verse, in which Pecknold addresses the naiads, saying, “You know you’re not a flower”, sees the singer attempt to pigeonhole the position of women in what is essentially a subverted version of what he criticised in the song’s previous two verses. Even still, overall, if there’s one constant when it comes to the conceptual arc of Crack-Up, it’s the ability with which Pecknold equals the album’s adventurous song structures and sumptuous arrangements with arcane thematic imagery that, at the very best of times, even pushes past many of the tropes typically associated with the brand of classic folk music from which Fleet Foxes take heavy cues across the album.
Indeed, although Crack-Up features many of the band’s most progressive compositional undertakings, a great deal of its best songs are those that conform to the outfit’s customary indie folk stylings. The polished vocal harmonies of Kept Woman gently drift atop the cycling acoustic guitar and piano arpeggios below, in a way that seems to pull more from Celtic folk than the band’s usual, Americana-focussed variety, but the piece is nevertheless kept centred within Fleet Foxes’ pre-established paradigm thanks to Pecknold’s rich and uniform Pacific Northwestern lilt. In contrast, Fool’s Errand assumes somewhat of a Middle Eastern folk hue in its first section, with the wisps of double harmonic scale chords marking the tone shift between the song’s minor and major passages elegantly, especially as they elevate Pecknold’s vocals to some of their loftiest heights on the whole record, leading into the beautiful chorus with great poise. Indeed, much of Crack-Up sees Fleet Foxes subtly expand on their influences from the traditional music of myriad cultures — even making use of folk instruments ranging from krakebs, a Maghrebi percussion instrument, to Japanese stringed instruments, such as the koto and the shamisen — but the stylistic inspiration from country music, and other forms of Appalachian music, runs deep at the core of many of these songs as usual. If You Need To, Keep Time On Me is simple in a rather stark manner, given that it follows the epic Third of May / Ōdaigahara, but its modesty still allows for some exceptionally melodic vocal performances and one of the most arresting minor key changes on the album. I Should See Memphis is similarly subdued, but in a way that toys with space in an almost ambient fashion, as the single lines of strings that constantly loom in the background of the cut are softly interlaced under Pecknold’s hushed vocal delivery.
Indeed, Crack-Up certainly ranks as Fleet Foxes’ most varied album, both stylistically and compositionally speaking, although, considering that it was the cohesion and rigid thematic frameworks of the group’s previous two albums that made them so strong, their latest release could be said to be, at times, more dishevelled than it is diverse. With the pivots that many of these pieces execute sometimes being very abrupt, and with Pecknold’s lyricism being less cohesive and more scattered, even abstruse, at times, it can be hard to gauge how much of the record’s disjointed nature is deliberately obtuse. For the most part, however, Fleet Foxes seem to be very much in control of guiding the listener in untangling the album’s maze-like structure, in a way that bypasses the frustration that could come with such an audacious attitude towards constructing an album. Likewise, with so many moments of impassioned performances and heavenly arrangements, there is a lot of be found across the record that exists outside of its sometimes convoluted structure. As such, for a departure from the outfit’s once wholly cohesive and rigid stylings, Crack-Up is an album that is beautiful both for its blemishes and its instances of fine-tuned folk splendour.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10