Fleet Foxes have not been exemplifying the work ethic – having dramatically emerged onto the music scene in 2008 with the Sun Giant EP and then their eponymous debut it was a full three years until the follow up Helplessness Blues. That was three years in which the Foxes achieved an ubiquity rarely accorded a band with so little recorded material to their name. Three years pales into nothingness compared to the six it has taken to produce album number three. This semi-hiatus was in part due to Robin Pecknold – the band’s songwriter and lead singer – deciding to go off to University and get a degree, which he has put to good use on Crack-Up, the title itself taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald collection. He’s very well read, it’s well known. That’s the backstory, but with Crack-up is something still happening here?
Well on the surface it certainly still sounds like Fleet Foxes: there hasn’t been a complete rethink of what the band is about. Which means that there are still layers of sun-drenched vocals sparkling like light diffusing through a stained glass window. There are quite literal cracks in the shiny surface though. It’s like revisiting Eden after the fall – the harmonic beauty and the baroque architecture of the music is still present but songs falter, fragments of other songs appear and found sounds filter through, crackling and buzzing. Opener I am all that I need / Anoyo Seco / Thumbprint scar feels like Pet Sounds crossed with Skip Spence’s Oar – a beautiful sound blended with the pain of a breakdown taking place before one’s eyes. Even when a song stays true to itself it’s likely to feature disrupting time changes, or lyrics that are designed as a puzzle. Crack-up at times feels like a musical version of Masquerade, but lacking the golden incentive to decipher it all. The beautiful Kept Woman for example has meditative layers of sound and a reconciliation theme – “can’t we get back together, baby, I ain’t changed so much” is metamorphosed into “can you slow for a little while ? / Widow your soul for another mile? / I’m just the same as when / You saw me back then”.
Crack-Up is to all intents and purposes a creation of Robin Pecknold. All songs are credited to him alone, he plays nearly all the instruments on all the songs. In the studio Fleet Foxes is Robin Pecknold – with a little help from Skyler Skjelset, and even less from the guys that need to go out as the band on tour. Take those multi layered vocals – that’s all Pecknold on five of the eleven tracks. On the opener Pecknold adds 5 guitars, four keyboards, some synthesizers and drum loops and that’s pretty typical for the album with one or two his band mates adding another layer. With that level of input it’s acceptable to consider the final product as a creation which reflects Robin Pecknold’s state of mind in particular.
Perhaps the most telling moment of the album is in the closing seconds as Pecknold’s feet can be heard running away upstairs followed by the sound of a closing door. Maybe it means nothing – but on this album that is unlikely when everything is a clue to be examined. It could be a final kiss-off to the band, with Pecknold literally running out on them or perhaps he’s just running away from the disturbing thoughts that have plagued him across Crack-up. Time will tell, but if there were another Fleet Foxes album it might be an idea to have less puzzle corners and a few more tunes like Fool’s Errand that actually linger in the mind when the record has stopped spinning. Crack-up is an album that will divide opinion, many have already come down on the side of work of genius, but there’s a contrary group muttering “Emperor’s New Clothes”.
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The long awaited return of Fleet Foxes sees Robin Pecknold’s merry band exploring metaphysical conundrums and passing out literary references like they’re going out of fashion.