Sometimes suffers at the hands of its many fraught layers.
With their second album Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes captured a generational anxiety and disillusionment and illustrated front man Robin Pecknold’s introspection, but it clearly didn’t reach a viable solution. Now after six long years of uncertainty about their return, Pecknold and company have unleashed an aural breakdown with their third album, Crack-Up. The album isn’t much longer than their sophomore effort, but a few six-plus minute songs and arrangements that favor polyrhythms and foster competing melodies make for a complex, challenging listen. Ambitious is putting it lightly, but the new album sometimes suffers at the hands of its many fraught layers.
The pattern throughout hinges on abrupt, 180-degree twists that can be jarring, cathartic and bewildering. Lead single “Third of May/Odaighara” eases listeners into this style, the first three minutes a classically jangly, exuberant Fleet Foxes track before devolving into a gritty electric guitar accompanied by ominous strings. Around the five-minute mark, Pecknold’s bright voice recedes into itself to become a whisper, undermining the uplifting message in the obtuse lyrics “But I hold the fleet angel, she’ll bless you/ Hold fast to the wing. Hold fast to the wing.”
Whereas the lead single for the most part holds true to the old template, opener “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar” is an atonal blend of three distinct tracks projecting dissonance alongside its lyrical soul-searching. It’s a fraught way to open such a long-awaited album, but it serves to illustrate both Pecknold’s emotional journey over the past six years and his commitment to intricate, new music.
The three pillars of this opener are a mournful, near-a capella song, a heady mix of droning picked strings, rattling percussion and choir harmonies and a hushed acoustic verse-turned piano folk ballad. The first two interrupt one another and defy logical flow, somber melancholy suddenly giving way to tremendous, unheralded harmonies and strumming. When Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset aren’t hacking together demos into one schizophrenic song, they offer moments like the seamless transition between “Cassius, -” and “- Naiads, Cassadies,” ostensibly creating another epic length track tied together by dizzying strings that are then traded for a steadying bass.
Just as the arrangements have this halting, digressive quality, so too do Pecknold’s lyrics. Even the first line of the album, “I am all that I need,” which sounds like an echo of Helplessness Blues, is almost immediately quashed out by a chorus of guitars and the contradicting line “So it’s true, I’ve gone too far to find you.” It’s a battle of wills between the lonely Pecknold and his full band. Throughout the album, Pecknold’s thoughts veer towards this often desperate reassurance, undercut by anxious self-doubt. What should be a homecoming in “Third of May/Odaighara” is described as being a “castaway.” In fact, it’s hard to see where there’s growth between this despondence and the frustration of the band’s second album, whose title track and its self-aware purpose as a “cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me” is miles ahead of “I’m reminded of the time it all fell in line, on the third of May/ As if it were designed, painted in sand to be washed away…Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?”
That’s not to say that Crack-Up is, or should be, an emotional or mental step forward for the introspective Pecknold. Unfortunately, life isn’t always straightforward, with time only building self-worth and certainty and never tearing it down. It’s telling that after such an existential album and six years away, Pecknold’s return is no more able to provide solutions. But what matters is the music, and this sonically conveys the strife that many feel. Its emotions deepen those on Helplessness Blues, this time with an emphasis on instrumental breakdowns and digressions. How well that translates to enjoying the music, however, will depend on your affinity for Fleet Foxes.
These 11 songs have plenty of achingly beautiful moments and strikingly interesting shifts, but there are also jarring moments that disrupt the experience for the worse. The act of intercutting multiple songs, juggling polyrhythms and abruptly disrupting thoughts threatens to become gimmicky. Crack-Up is an important step for Pecknold if he is going to continue making music, but it may not end up being one of the most accessible albums in the Fleet Foxes oeuvre.