Music Reviews

posted: June 26, 2017

Fleet Foxes Crack-Up

Nonesuch, 2LP or CD
Fleet Foxes

“I am all that I need.” These are the words that greet the listener at the start of Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up, the group’s first album in six years. It’s a phrase that immediately seems to shut out the eavesdropper, and you must strain to hear it. Singer/band architect Robin Pecknold appears buried in the shadows of some deep-toned, echo-filled acoustic guitar notes, sounding as if he doesn’t really want to be found. And maybe he doesn’t: During varying points throughout the unfolding, three-part suite of a song, he disappears into a whisper.

Anyone familiar with Fleet Foxes’ history may want to set aside memories of past albums when experiencing Crack-Up—if not forget them altogether. What had been an increasingly ornate and fanciful folk-pop style gets largely left behind here. Consider this a reset. Indeed, after an initial listen or two, listeners even may be tempted to define Crack-Up as a work of introspection, especially based on the album’s opening line and general low-key tone. But the collection is also obtuse and its arrangements erratic, characteristics that lend a sense of coldness. As the name implies, Crack-Up signifies something of an emotional mess, a post-existential crisis of an album full of split personalities and sonic detours, and yet one where such manic tendencies feel obsessively organized. If a loose concept ties these songs together, consider it one of trying to maintain composure in times of stress. Or, you know, life in 2017.

The Seattle-bred quintet—all members are billed as multi-instrumentalists—takes largely experimental approaches throughout. A song may begin with the soft hum of a synthesizer and in moments be met by light accoutrements such as a gently strummed guitar. Arrangements then often come up against imaginary concrete walls, forcing songs to suddenly shift direction and swell in scope and size with harmonies and lush acoustic instrumentation or calming strings. The latter serve as the sort of beautiful moments for which Fleet Foxes are known, but Pecknold and longtime musical collaborator Skyler Skjelset ultimately keep the listener at arm’s length, preferring a less-straightforward approach.

Fleet Foxes still qualify as folksy, yet instead of possessing the woodsy charm of the band’s first two albums, Crack-Up embraces a classical approach. In other words, this is music that would work in a chamber hall. See the alternating, mournful piano notes that launch “Kept Woman” or the lonely, dirge-like “On Another Ocean (January / June),” where the beat flutters with the tick-tock of a stuttering, broken clock and orchestral flourishes crest and fall like ocean waves. On “Mearcstapa,” plucked strings created an underlying hypnotic feel that soon yields to contrasting notes—a more urgent bass, a rhythm with all the smoothness of a rickshaw ride, and watery, nearly indecipherable symphonic instruments.

With the album’s title sharing the same name as a 1936 essay from F. Scott Fitzgerald, a fellow soul-searching confessional, Pecknold aptly adopts thoughtful, slightly imaginative lyrical devices. “I move like blood, like fire and flood,” he sings on “Fool’s Errand,” a jaunty ditty made weirder by the shape-shifting instrumentation that seems to bend as if reflected in a curved mirror. On the oddly punctuated “Cassius, –,“ Pecknold presents a vision of society breaking down, in which men steal from beggars and violence occurs with no relief in sight. “Red and blue, the useless sirens scream,” he sings in an unaffected manner, at least in the opening moments. Akin to many tunes on Crack-Up, “Cassius, –“ soon unspools into at least three different parts, where wavering synths give way to lightly brushed guitars.

Egyptian Gods and references to the Civil War clash in “I Should See Memphis,” a spare number in which a strummed guitar rushes ahead of a sweetened violin. History and literature meet again in the title track, which builds to a horn-infused march only to dissolve into near-nothingness. Any evident drama remains hidden behind lines like, “The tighter the fist, the looser the sand,” lending the narrative some English lit-worthy classicism.

By going more philosophical than personal, Fleet Foxes have produced a meticulously designed but oddly aloof collection—one admirable yet difficult to embrace. It’s almost as if Crack-Up is intended to be studied rather than heard.

–Todd Martens