In most Fleet Foxes compositions, things start pretty loud and usually got really loud. Hear the jangly blare of “White Winter Hymnal” in your head right now, or the tornado of liturgical “aah”s that kick off “The Plains/Bitter Dancer.” Though the “folk” moniker is often applied, most of the band’s songs feel like musical Big Macs with a touch of Brian Wilson’s “symphony to God”-like ambition, dominated by an urge to make every odd chord pivot and bit of counterpoint as technically beautiful as possible.
In most of the songs by the new, returned Fleet Foxes, the band tacks on new, unexpected sections to their songforms to create contrast, or stacks up new voicings to fill out every inch of their canvas. But “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me,” the latest release from the band’s upcoming album Crack-Up, is immediately most striking because it shies away from their impulses, and stays pretty soft. Lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold’s normally pealing tenor is surprisingly reigned in; a lone vocal harmony enters, as in so many simple pop songs and poignant country standards, only to emphasize the chorus. Here, that’s the titular romantic phrase, which is pleasantly resonant: It sounds good enough to be worth repeating throughout the bulk of the song.
Pecknold told Zane Lowe that the song is meant as a “a breath between some pretty dense pieces of music.” When you remember that the Foxes came roaring back with a nine-minute collage-form epic with a slash, hyphen, and a Japanese mountain in its title, this seems like it has to be true. But luckily, “Keep Time on Me” is not an flimsy, derivative throwaway. Its finest element is its gentler take on the typical Fleet Foxes rhythmic quirkiness; the acoustic guitar chunks and dramatic percussion underscores in the chorus seem to be painting the text, striking on “need to” and “keep time” like a grandfather clock.
In an unexpected bridge section, the song changes key, briefly taking on a mystical quality. The lyrics themselves pivot with them: “When I need to, I’ll keep time on you.” Delay-drenched piano rises up like rapids beneath the band. Life happens even when you are trying to be someone’s rock; a relationship can change and falter, and still eventually come back to itself. Pecknold’s “you” and “me” come together throughout the song to find a shared, simple rhythm that’s pleasantly at odds with the surrounding complexity.