Fleet Foxes’ third album Crack-Up opens with I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar which, living up to its name, is no less than three sleepy melodies over a wasteland of folk-inspired sounds. It builds quickly and rapidly into a chugging, upbeat folk ballad; that is, as upbeat as Fleet Foxes’ brand of folk gets.
Frontman Robin Pecknold sings “I’ll be all I need until I’m through,” his voice ranging from moaning to fragile delicateness to howling anger. That titular line and the song’s turbulent sounds nicely sum up the record from the outset. It reveals Pecknold’s vision as defiant; that he is keen to buck the rules of song progressions (and title naming conventions) – in fact, any rules for how indie folk should sound. The song is a roller coaster, and so is the album. A delicate, highbrow, complex, varied, emotional and personal roller coaster.
On Crack-Up Pecknold has created something rather musically and emotionally erudite, so much so that at times it can feel hard to relate to. It’s like the album is from a different universe to the listener. It is so full of sudden changes, dips, hikes and jarring music and vocal work that it can feel a little overwhelming at times. It also takes influence from jazz, country, rock, Latin, disco, acid folk and classical music to name but a few sources, and if that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.
Many of the songs have multiple titles and carry over to other songs. There are references to art, history, literature, politics and society. There are also references to extremely personal confessions and accounts as well as Pecknold’s direct environment, like the New York Subway and the street he lives on. The album jams everything in, so much so that it’s like finding your way through the wires of someone’s brain. Straightforward it is not.
The tinkering of sounds including running water, violin, keys, piano, acoustic guitar, percussion, violin, tambourine, trumpet and, notably, varying forms of electronica, alongside all the harmonies and symbolism, is put through layers, tonal shifts and speed changes that are all very beautiful. You can appreciate the intricate and intellectual approach, but these can also work to alienate the listener.
Third of May/ Ōdaigahara, the lead single, is a huge nine minute track demonstrating the complexities of the album. Pecknold has gone to much trouble on sites such as Genius.com to explain the lyrics of this song, saying it is written in three sections, all from different perspectives, or characters. He says the first of these characters is speaking from varied places in time; the deeper his vocals go, the further away from real time the character gets.
The album is not all complex and impressionistic; it does have some more classic Fleet Foxes moments that show Pecknold can’t resist a catchy melody. If You Need To, Keep Time On Me is a minimal number putting the story at the forefront; a heartfelt standout that acts as a nice break and a breath fresh air. It stays relatively uniform, unlike the rest of the disorderly songs. Uniform isn’t always boring; in this instance, it’s charming.
It must be said that if you are not a fan of Pecknold’s raspy, high pitched vocals, the whole album in one go may prove a little hard to swallow. But if you can get on board with the vocals, or if you are already a Fleet Foxes fan, you will likely rejoice in the meandering, lush, cerebral sounds and musings about Knut Hamsun, Katie Price and F. Scott Fitzgerald. You’ll enjoy the tonal shifts and Pecknold’s want to go against the rules of music. You’ll likely see Crack-Up as reaffirming Fleet Foxes as the masters of indie-folk.
It’s not surprising the album was six years in the making (last album Helplessness Blues came out all the way back in 2011) and it literally feels like six years of life: the confusion, the learning, the disappointments, the celebrations, the anger and the love. But most importantly, the growing.
Crack-Up encapsulates all this into one jam packed soul-on-the sleeve album. But as much as we can appreciate the effort, the level of detail and thought, and the beautiful sounds that wake up your brain from afar, there’s no escaping the feeling Fleet Foxes have failed to connect in the way they have previously, this time around.