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Review: Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up Is a Successfully Daring Step Forward

No matter how many dashes and parentheses Robin Pecknold inserts into his song titles, or how many Japanese mountains and medieval British monsters loom behind his lyrics, a Fleet Foxes record will pretty much always sound like Fleet Foxes. The opening minutes of Crack-Up, the band’s third album and first in six years, are instructive in this regard. First, we hear the queasy shifting pitches of a tape machine starting up and finding its speed, then some quietly fingerpicked guitar. Pecknold begins singing in the bottom of his range, a husky and uncertain register he’s rarely employed on previous releases. There are vocal harmonies, but they’re small and inhuman, like they’re coming from a piece of software instead of someone’s diaphragm.

The album’s uncanny first strains last for only about a minute before galloping layers of guitar arrive like the cavalry, pulling Pecknold’s voice back to the honeyed comfort of his sweet spot. “So it’s true, I’ve gone too far to find you,” he belts out above the din, instantly recognizable despite the traversed distance to which he alludes. Crack-Up finds Pecknold in environs far from the pastoral scenes of his early material, but when he sings like this, there can be no mistake about who you’re listening to. It’s a fitting introduction to a different sort of Fleet Foxes album, one that’s stormy, ambitious, and reticent to indulge in the sunny, bearded Beach Boys escapism of the first two. Pecknold arrived with a fully-formed sound as a 22-year-old on his first releases, and Crack-Up is an extraordinary step forward, stretching his gifts to fit the larger canvas on which he’s now working while keeping his band’s old charms intact.

The album title references a trilogy of essays called The Crack-Up, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in Esquire in 1936. The great writer’s fourth and final finished novel was two years in the rearview mirror; he was severely alcoholic; his wife had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was living in a psychiatric hospital; the roaring decade that defined his public life had long since passed. Four years later, he would be dead. With a curious literary distance, the Crack-Up essays recounted the breakdown of a man who had “cracked like an old plate,” to quote a line of Fitzgerald’s that Pecknold also picks up on the album. The essays made Fitzgerald’s personal distress clear, but they did so in deliberately unspecific terms, and without addressing the larger cracking up of global order–the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe, the Great Depression in America–that provided their sociopolitical backdrop.

They were widely condemned by Fitzgerald’s fellow writers at the time. “Christ, man, how do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff?” the novelist John Dos Passos wrote. “We’re living in one of the damnedest tragic moments in history.” Fitzgerald’s subject, Glenway Wescott added, was a man who had “nothing left of the intellect but inward observation.”

Before it even came out, Crack-Up had a reputation as a daunting record. The first single, “Third of May / ?daigahara,” is nearly nine minutes long, with the multiple distinct movements implied by its title. Much of the album’s advance press has focused on the time Pecknold spent enrolled as a literature student at Columbia University after the release of 2011’s Helplessness Blues, and the aforementioned nods to mythology and geology that crept into his songwriting. (It turns out that Pecknold had already written much of the album before going back to school, as he pointed out in a long and thoughtful response to a mostly negative review from Stereogum last week.)

It’s true that there’s nothing on the album as immediately enchanting as “White Winter Hymnal” was in 2008. It’s also true that the final section of “Third of May / ?daigahara” is comprised almost entirely of heady acoustic guitar ambience, which will appeal to fans of Sung Tongs-era Animal Collective but might perplex those who just want to hear simple folk songs. But before it dissolves, “Third of May / ?daigahara” is as gracefully melodic as anything Pecknold has previously written. Crack-Up is filled with similarly satisfying moments, and though they may take several listens to reveal their beauty, the payoff for your patience and attention is substantial. “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” is a miniature devotional hymn wedged between two knotty fantasias, with a brief incursion of minor key material to remind you that you’re not out of the woods quite yet. “On Another Ocean (January June),” begins with several minutes of wandering that evoke the seascape on Crack-Up’s cover, but when it finally kicks in, the groove practically induces headbanging.

Crack-Up is hypnotically rhythmic in a way that differentiates it from the Fleet Foxes canon. The band divides seemingly simple meters in irregular ways, allowing them to gather force through repetition–an approach that suggests the influence of American minimalist composers. The minimalists can be heard in Crack-Up’s arrangements as well: “Kept Woman” has the rolling arpeggios of Philip Glass’s works for solo piano; the fluttering mallets and woodwinds of “Cassius” may as well have been imported directly from Steve Reich’s landmark piece Music for 18 Musicians.

Pecknold’s lyrics are outstanding as well, though he has said that he finds writing them uninteresting. Consider “I Should See Memphis,” which is filled with apparent references to antiquity that later pivot toward recent American history, or vice versa. In the first verse, Pecknold conjures the image of a man or woman “pacing the basement like Cassius in Rome,” meaning Cassius Longinus, the senator who helped plot the murder of Julius Caesar. Then, the singer changes his mind: “Or in Kinshasa / ‘Just let me at him’.” Suddenly, we’re circling the ring with Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer and civil rights icon born Cassius Clay, about to deliver the knockout punch to George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. After spiriting away for visits to the Civil War battles of Bull Run and Appomattox, Pecknold then lands in contemporary Memphis, surrounded by highways, site of the death of another black leader in another world-changing assassination. And as the song whispers to a close, there’s a brief appearance from Osiris, ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife, suggesting we may be in a different Memphis entirely.

Like Wescott and Dos Passos to Fitzgerald, it would be easy to criticize Fleet Foxes for being too indulgent, too densely referential, and not engaged enough with our current tumultuous era. You won’t find any straightforward protest songs here. As its title implies, Crack-Up is concerned with fissures–interpersonal, psychological, political–and the ways in which they often reverberate long after the first cracks start to show. Pecknold disputed the characterization of Crack-Up as apolitical in his response to Stereogum’s review, writing that “Cassius” is “explicitly about participating in protests following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last summer, as well as the death of Muhammad Ali.” (Yes, as unlikely as it sounds, Ali makes multiple lyrical appearances on the new Fleet Foxes album.) “How is an album title like Crack-Up not obviously a reference to our current political climate as much as it is a reference to any personal psychology?” Pecknold continued.

In the first Crack-Up essay, Fitzgerald enumerates one of the appeals of living as a writer: “You were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent.” On Crack-Up the album, Pecknold is similarly unburdened: from the folk-rock strictures of his early material, from pressure to provide easy answers to the crises of our current era. Crack-Up unites a dazzling array of material under Pecknold’s voice. It’s the sound of a remarkably talented musician and writer exploring the conflicts within him and those that animate the outside world, and finding that many of them look the same.