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. They also haven’t retreated further inside an idea like their only contemporary rival in terms of quality — Bon Iver.
Rather, Fleet Foxes have moved further in every direction their first two explored. Everything about Crack-Up is more. More meandering, more unpredictability, more guitars, more percussion, more lyrics, more time (each of their records so far has been longer than its predecessor), more thought, more everything. But don’t let that make you think this is some maximalist sandwich stuffed with everything left in the fridge. Pecknold has not forsaken meticulousness for the sake of more — much like their previous record Helplessness Blues from 2011.
Seventy-three months later we are greeted, rather than a high pitched nursery rhyme like their debut, a nearly atonal meditation calling to mind Leonard Cohen. Sixty seconds later, a ramshackle and powerful movement begins and Fleet Foxes are back. Six years is a long time. When we last left Pecknold and co. there were zero Father John Misty records. Now there are three. Their break between sophomore and junior release has been longer than LCD Soundsystem’s fake retirement. Hot take: their third record is their best, a meandering, wild, untamable masterpiece from a front man who refuses to stop studying and refuses to be predictable.
The patience it must have taken to make such a scrupulous record is apparent. The calm entry of the orchestration on “Mearcstapa” resisting the urge to fence in the whole track with strings, it is just a flourish, just a movement, just a moment.
This record has zero concern with some of the thought processes that plague indie folk records — will it sound good playing at Intelligentsia? Or Chipotle? This record constantly sounds joyously free from the 2017 ice cube trays these sorts of records are forced into fitting. Also, Pecknold very clearly does not care if you like this record. It’s his and he sounds ambitious and clear headed as he makes the record he would most want to hear — not self-servingly, just genuinely. Someone who cared what you thought would never write a song like “Third of May” and they definitely wouldn’t have released it as an advance single.
Of all the records you listen to this year, this might be the one that is the most tempting to dismiss on a first, second, or third listen, but Crack-Up rewards those who wait for it to dissolve slowly. “On Another Ocean” sounds like several thoughts smashed together on first listen, but patience will reveal its tension building, octave jumping falsetto as a summit, rather than an intersection.
Immediacy as a concern has been traded here for persistence. By the time the music on the opening track breaks into the sound of ocean waves, we are closer to a descendant of Cornelius than Fleetwood Mac. This distinction is important. Long have folk artists been dependent upon celerity, but Pecknold wants you to trade that desire in for an upgrade, to surreptitious movements. Not that the record is all stealth ninja pop covering itself with byzantine folk — “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” is as simple as its title, a nice palate cleanser after the obtuse “Third of May”.
“I Should See Me” starts with an Arcade Fire pad, and an Arcade Fire strum pattern, but rather than launch 150 mph towards hating fear or distance or capitalistic progress like a Win Butler song, Pecknold works on his Bob Dylan and Nick Drake impressions at the same time. But don’t let that come across as a diss, I see it as an homage rather than a lack of individualization. Dylan changed his voice in the late 60’s and was maligned before time and critical thought vindicated him. Robin is just adding his vocal range to the long list of talents we already knew he had. The song implodes, by the way. If it was a car, we get to hear it go into the crushing machine.
Fleet Foxes have long painted in greens and browns and reds, but on Crack-Up, more than ever, the reds are more sangria, the browns more hickory, the greens more basil. That isn’t to say this is the most Fleet Foxy record possible — rather the opposite. The step towards subtlety is appreciated, rather than the step towards $. Robin Pecknold is clearly capable of making a “smash hit” indie folk record, but his disinterest plays through every minute — constantly making decisions motivated by art and direction and never motivated by what will prevent skips on Pandora or whatever bull is deemed important by some guy in a suit at a failing label.
Lyrics call to mind Thom Yorke’s irritated musings — “I don’t need you / (cut to chew through fingernails).” Also recent-classic ruminations; “Cinder and smoke” from “Kept Woman”, but also one of the best Iron and Wine songs found on Our Endless, Numbered Days. The lyrics are self-referential in a way that feels like a conservative version of Kanye — the references are masked but there upon contemplation. Much will probably be made of that in reviews, but, honestly, its less apparent without a press release.
Speaking of lyricism, that’s the subject of the title and final track. The first verse contemplates before exploding into rhythmic energy on verse two and then collapsing into low register whispers, bookending the first moments of Crack-Up on every level. The song is about writer’s block, and a 2200 year old Roman politician, and tweetable quotes like — “the tighter the first, the looser the sand.” The final word in the lyrics is “Ylajali,” a working title for the record on Instagram last year and a Knut Hamson reference. Even reading what I just wrote about this song sounds so muddy, but that’s the thing that make Fleet Foxes compelling, all 25 ingredients and it comes out simple and fresh. Pecknold and co. have topped themselves once again. Give it a few years. In my opinion this will be their high water mark. A