By Clayton Ambrose
Artist: Fleet Foxes
Release Date: June 16, 2017
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Robin Pecknold cited feeling “one dimensional” as one of the catalysts for his six-year sabbatical from music. Now, awakening from the years-long hibernation, Fleet Foxes have returned with their third album that, if nothing else, proves that this is not the case. Crack-Up is as intricate and varied as it is beautiful, elevating Pecknold and Co.’s folk-rock mastery even further beyond 2011’s Helplessness Blues and cementing it as their best product to date. The album is rich in its instrumentation, insightful in its lyrics, and is absolutely bursting at the seams with gorgeous (and surprisingly catchy) melodies, making it certainly worth the wait.
Crack-Up’s sound is more dynamic and complex than its predecessor. The album starts and stops without warning, creating a relationship where the music can be jerked from moment to moment without proper warning, mimicking ocean waves that rise and fall then rise again, reflected by the beautiful seascape that graces the cover of Crack-Up. Arguably the album’s finest hour, the multi-act opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” starts with a brief instant of distorted guitar, as if waking up from a daze, before steadying into a quiet moment of self-reflection by Pecknold. This moment is cut short as the full force of the Fleet Foxes sound bursts into frame, or as Pecknold affectionately puts it in the album’s lyric booklet, “The band kicks the loner off the stage”. This back and forth is continued later in the song, creating a literal inner dialogue between Pecknold’s two selves; one lonesome and withdrawn, and the other confidently trying to get the other back on its feet.
Later in the album, this idea of duality is manifested in even more literal terms with “On Another Ocean (January / June)”, which begins as a solemn, piano driven track before slowing the tempo and bringing in the rest of the band for the rest of the song. As implied in the title, the song is split into movements that reflect the months of January and June and the stark contrast between the seasons of Winter and Summer, with the first half being cold and spacious and the second half being livelier and brighter. Pecknold, through the music of Crack-Up, captures the feeling of being a living, breathing human being, whose opinions and perceptions change like the seasons.
The lyricism on Crack-Up, in line with the rest of Fleet Foxes’ discography, includes Pecknold baring his soul into his work. The album is heavily influenced by Pecknold’s six year self-evaluation journey, during which he destroyed old identities and perceptions to build new ones while coming to understand his own shortcomings and fallibilities. Perhaps summing up the whole album, Pecknold sings in “A Fool’s Errand”, “I knew you fine, sight dream of mine/but I know my eyes, they have often lied”.
In “Third Of May” , this concept is applied to Pecknold’s complicated relationship with bandmate Skyler Skjelset and their mental and physical separation during the time between albums. The song compresses such an intimate situation into its 8:45 runtime, describing the twists and turns that eventually culminate in their reuniting for Crack-Up, as evidenced by Skjelset’s heavy involvement on the album. At one point, a past Pecknold contemplates, “Was I too slow? Did you change overnight?” before later reversing this question on himself, asking “Was I too slow? Did I change overnight?”
Pecknold also turns his observations outward, commenting on the world as it changed drastically during his respite. “Cassius, -“, probably the most political song on the album, describes New York City streets aflame with protest, depicting “Songs of masses, passing outside/All inciting the fifth of July/When guns for hire open fire/Blind against the dawn”. Pecknold has himself said the song to be about the killing of Alton Sterling, for which he had marched in protest with countless others last summer. In the midst of civil unrest and tumultuous politics stands “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” as a voice of comfort in trying times. In the chorus, Pecknold softly beckons us to “keep time” on him in moments that we may lose our rhythm. Although sung from a first-person perspective, this song calls for us to put ourselves into Pecknold’s place and be the metronome when someone else feels that they have lost the tempo in the hysteria.
Crack-Up is the most spellbinding and daring Fleet Foxes album to date. Pecknold and his crack team of musicians have continued to expand on the sound they established on 2008’s Fleet Foxes, preserving themselves from becoming stale like the countless others in the folk-rock graveyard. Pecknold has once again put his impeccable songwriting skills on display, solidifying him as one of the most talented songsmiths working today. Exhibiting immense vulnerability through this music and his constant communication with fans through various social media outlets, Pecknold has created a work that truly feels like a shared experience between creator and consumer, allowing us to play in these soundscapes and frolic through memories that don’t belong to us, but feel vivid and immediate nonetheless.