Fleet Foxes: Crack Up review

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

With a string of consistently gorgeous albums, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes introduced their now-familiar cavernous, reverb-y folk sound to the world almost a decade ago- and rightfully cemented their status as an indie mainstay. 2011’s ‘Helplessness Blues’ was an epic listen: both vast and focused, sonically dramatic yet lyrically thoughtful: Fleet Foxes were surely here to stay. And then, just as fans and critics were desperate to hear more, they fell silent. The band disbanded. Drummer Josh Tillerman quit and became Father John Misty: the breakout singer-songwriter enjoying prime-time slots on American talk shows with his wry, sardonic political voice. FJM was current, relevant, eminently hip: Fleet Foxes were finished.  “We all started hating each other” he told the Guardian, “there were a lot of tears”. It was, in short, a crack-up.

Robin Pecknold, the lead singer and lifeblood of the band, had enrolled to Columbia University in search of a new purpose: “I was trying to find new things to care about” he told the NYT. Here he discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous ‘Crack-Up’ essay. It was “exactly about that — needing to build your own reasons for living.” So rather than ignoring his sudden loss of direction and subsequent six-year hiatus, he wrote an album about it: the result is something captivating. ‘Crack-Up’ is more complex and orchestral, and more sprawling than its predecessors- but just like ‘Helplessness Blues’, it is a record to get lost in. The opening track, ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ (me neither) kicks things off with the jangly inertia of chromatic bells and swirling violins that could have been lifted straight from Helplessness Blues. We get hints of a new direction, however, as Pecknold struggles with his past- “the thumbprint scar I let define you / Was a myth I made”. Indeed, while the band’s sound has become bolder and more ambitious, Pecknold’s lyrics seem to retreat further inwards with every release. Here he is uncertain and questioning to the point of neuroticism. “Cassius” is explicitly political- referencing the police brutality that lead to the murder of Alton Sterling, and the subsequent protests that Pecknold participated in. His lyrics are oblique throughout, but here they are pointed and angry “Men take the change from beggars / Tight bound in sheets / Red and blue, the useless sirens scream”. Likewise, the tracks, ‘Naiads, Cassadies’ and ‘Kept Woman’ address sexism in modern America- a point which I had initially passed over on account of Pecknold’s oblique lyrics. Actually, this is problematic for me- on occasion the album just sounds wilfully obscure. Robin took the time to pen extensive annotations for his songs online, in a kind of bizarre attempt at self-exegesis. The line “sky would petal white”, he explains “is homophonic with “Skye [a bandmate] would pedal wide,” we used to go on bike rides together”. How on earth were we meant to guess that? If he wants to cast off his ‘overly-pretentious hipster’ image, I suggest a change of tack.

On ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’, however, Fleet Foxes open up their dynamic and orchestral range. The song vacillates from soaring string sections, through driving percussion to sparse vocal harmonies. Pecknold’s unaccompanied delivery is whisper-quiet, almost confessional. The result is dazzling- more post-rock than folk.

Throughout the album, Fleet Foxes walk the line between conventional verse-chorus simplicity and unstructured experimentation. Samples, electronic instrumentation and linear song structures push the band’s sound, but enough rapturous melodic inflections are kept in to keep me happy. When the experimentation is reigned in, we get the delightful ‘Fool’s Errand’ – the most recognisably and straightforwardly ‘Fleet Foxes’ song here. ‘I Should See Memphis’ falls on the opposite side- not a disappointment, but lacking any enjoyable peaks.

The layered orchestration and stupidly opaque lyrics justify (nay, demand) repeated listens, but your efforts will be rewarded: the result is a triumphant return for Fleet Foxes.