While Fleet Foxes’ first two records branded listeners with hook-driven compilations of embers smoldering from campfire sing along jubilation, their latest release “Crack-Up” splits open and pushes its listeners into cavernous valleys with calamitous bodies of water below. Once the listener plunges into these sonic bodies of water, they are enveloped in a familiar warmth set forth by the earnest lyricism of frontman Robin Pecknold.
Named after “The Crack-Up,” an essay written by the renowned author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Fleet Foxes’ latest thrives as their most expansive and textured work to date, filled with gorgeous harmonies and challenging song structures where melodies meander but reward over time. Simply put, “Crack Up” has a palpable gravitas to it — a gripping experience by any measure.
“Crack-Up” entrusts a cinematically grand nature. The album’s magnum opus, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” realizes this album’s large scale essence. While the first listen invokes an overwhelmed reaction over the multi layers of sound and structure, over time, lyrical and musical clarity materializes, allowing for the swelling instrumentation of twangy stringed bliss and massive horn sections to unpack a perfect intermingling of sentiment and entropy. This is fair to say for the rest of “Crack-Up.” With the copious amounts of opulent instrumentation throwing blows from different angles, Fleet Foxes manage to project raw and unhinged emotion, better yet, a turbulent ocean of emotion, where the complexity of Pecknold’s psyche clashes in order to accurately embody a record fortified by cascading walls of ambient folk textures.
While “Crack Up’s” proggy folk sound takes time to disentangle, it is less difficult to notice the shift in tone and lyricism compared to their prior work. Once upon a time, listeners indulged in the unwavering optimism of Fleet Foxes’ first two albums. However, “Crack Up” pumps the brakes on the sunshine and brings in the storm clouds that inevitably surface in life.
After a six-year hiatus, it appears Pecknold has embraced the pandemonious tendencies of life. Whether that is anxiety, socio-political disarray or any other strenuous issue that humans share in grief, Pecknold has decided to penetrate these issues with an impassioned blade whether resolution is found or not. By the end of this project, there seems to be no resolution at all. In fact, he seems more confused about what irks him than when the album started. But for Pecknold that is ok, which is the premise of “Crack-Up:” to surpass personal limitations even though the results may not be favorable. Ultimately, he offers a personal narrative that hinges on a journey of self-discovery — a journey told by his esoteric talents that result in a collection of tracks that are contemplative — a reprieve of some kind.
Fleet Foxes latest release is a harmonious marriage of their first two albums as it melds syncopated accessibility of their self-titled and the explorative songwriting of “Helplessness Blues.” While “Helplessness Blues” still remains as the Northwestern quintet’s masterstroke, “Crack-Up’s” evasiveness from traditional folk simplicity rivals the allure of their prior release. This project needed to marinate and once I let it work its course, I detected the intricacies that define these grandeur arrangements — intricacies that merely made a cameo in “Helplessness Blues.”
Many listeners will be kept at bay by how much is going on in between the crevices of “Crack-Up.” Criticism wages upon how off-putting the sudden twists and turns of mood and sound appear, which to some, are unnecessary compared to how accessible and simple their last two releases felt. Needless to say, every strum, hum, swell, detour and abstract arrangement experienced on “Crack-Up” is purposeful. Each element weaving in and out of each track is meticulously constructed, then fleshed out to levy a cinematic ebb and flow of cathartic energy. Yes, the melodies lack the vigor which encompassed “Helplessness Blues,” but the band supplements melody with venturous songwriting and an unorthodox structure, ultimately setting Fleet Foxes apart from their folk contemporaries.
Over the course of now three records, Pecknold has substantiated a willingness to reinvent Fleet Foxes whilst preserving the band’s image. Because he cultivates inventive artistry, Fleet Foxes continue to outlive the flash-in-the-pan wave of folk popularity that ceased to exist a few years ago. With so many musical diversions, climactic and anticlimactic moments on “Crack-Up,” Fleet Foxes flourishes in stretching traditional songwriting and seizes the breaths of many by circumnavigating linear song structures. With all this to say, Fleet Foxes six-year absence was more than worth the wait.