Fleet Foxes’ third album ‘Crack-Up’ is more naturalistic and abstract than its two predecessors.
Robin Pecknold seems to be on a perpetual voyage of self-discovery that shows no sign of ever slowing. The Fleet Foxes lead vocalist has, in the six years since their last album, the seminal Helplessness Blues, enrolled at Columbia University, an institution which shares the initials of his latest record. This can surely be no accident; it’s clear that his experience at Columbia has shaped the direction of the album. The essence of Fleet Foxes is still very much present, with the same folky vocals entrenched into each earthy track, and any Fleet Foxes fan would still recognise their sound instantly, but there are nuances.
The key sonic differences between this album and its predecessors can be characterised by an overhaul in the way that Fleet Foxes navigate from the start to the end of one of their musical stories. There have always been deviations within tracks in their repertoire that converge back to a theme or a concept which always remains prevalent despite the detours the song may take. It’s something that makes Fleet Foxes’ music so captivating. On Crack-Up, this is taken a step further. Songs dart from one mood to another, from one tale to the next, taking the listener on an odyssey through Pecknold’s various epiphanies, and on Crack-Up there is little doubt to be had about when these realisations hit.
The opening six-and-a-half-minute opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ starts with a nearly-inaudibly light plucking of strings that is slowly accompanied by Pecknold’s uncharacteristically low and mumbling vocals. To introduce the album in this way instantly marks change, and tells the avid fans to expect a new tone. Suddenly the track is overcome by the powerful steady strumming that one expects on a Fleet Foxes album. A sense of purpose and hope is built upon these early foundations with this new tone, but it is dotted with returns to the lower register that invokes a feeling of uncertainty and questioning. Crack-Up continues in a similar vein. Each new song feels like a voyage through a different section of the minds of Fleet Foxes, with the continuous use of different passages within songs creating beautiful contrasts. The album feels like a dilemma, and each song bounces back and forth between the different thoughts that might lead to a decision.
Lyrically, Crack-Up is a work of poetic art. Each verse is littered with historical references, many of which are invoked to subtly discuss the political. In ‘I Should See Memphis’, the listener hears a juxtaposition of mentions of Cassius in Rome and the Egyptian god Osiris with a reference to the recent American election, seen by many as a choice between two evils (“But I gave you no option, illusion of choosing”). Nonetheless, it’s inappropriate to call this a political album. It’s more of an album about confliction- reaching breaking point with moments of acceptance. The titular final track is an example of this: “I can tell you’ve cracked Like a china plate… If I don’t resist Will I understand?”
A true highlight on Crack-Up is ‘Third Of May / Ōdaigahara’. As with all the songs on this album, to delve into the lyrics is a vast challenge which produces great rewards, and Robin Pecknold, clearly aware of the complexity of his poetry, has taken the liberty to pick it apart on this particular track on the lyric site Genius. The song constantly refers to a painting by Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, and as Pecknold explains, his words attempt to link aspects of the painting to human experience. A near nine-minute epic, ‘Third Of May’ continues the theme of self-questioning, with queries on Pecknold’s own humanity scattered throughout: “Was I too slow? Did I change overnight?… Can I be light and free?… Is all that I might owe you carved on ivory?”
While Crack-Up breaks new ground for Fleet Foxes in terms of its far less structured nature in favour of a more naturalistic distracted one, it has its downsides. There are times where the album appears far less focused than their previous works, and Pecknold occasionally loses himself in his attempt to be as profound as possible. Listening through the album can feel slightly jumbled up, and it takes more than a few listens to begin to understand what Fleet Foxes are trying to convey.
Nevertheless, it is certainly worth the time it takes to comprehend this album and its musings. This is a constantly changing beast of a record, filled to the brim with immaculate lyricism and drifting melodies that pick the listener up and throw them back down hard. It feels like the most unfocused Fleet Foxes album yet, but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and Pecknold makes sure it isn’t. (7/10) (Josh Kirby)
Listen to Crack-Up here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes, Josh Kirby, Morgan Henderson, Nonesuch, review, Robin Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset
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