Few bands manage to hit on a sound that is both individual and popular – fewer by far have the audacity to continue to innovate once they have. Where a lesser band would have milked the rich melodies and immediacy of Fleet Foxes’ 2008 debut album for all it’s worth, they instead opted to follow it up with 2011’s Helplessness Blues – an album of deeper emotional resonance, greater complexity, and maturity well beyond the age of its members. Something of a quiet masterpiece, it’s no great surprise that the band took 6 years to follow it up. While frontman Robin Pecknold spent some of that time going back to college – the embryo of what would become ‘Crack-Up’ doubtless already in mind – most of it was, if the resultant album is anything to go by, spent pouring over the most minute details, ironing out any possible flaws.
‘Crack-Up’ is in many ways the logical successor to the ‘Helplessness Blue’s crown; it takes the eccentricities and complexities further, Pecknold’s erudite lyricism even more richly diverse here than it was on their last effort. Musically, too, it’s a definite evolvement from its predecessor. Where that album still sat firmly rooted in folk of a sorts – more experimental, wide-scope visions only alluded to – ‘Crack-Up’ capitalises on the promises ‘Helplessness Blues’ made.
A lack of ambition has never been an issue for Fleet Foxes; even their very earliest work prior to releasing anything more than a demo CD shows a band wrestling to articulate ideas so lofty that only now are they beginning to fully catch up with them. Where previously Fleet Foxes could be broadly definied as a folk band, ‘Crack-Up’ casts them in a more uncertain light. The glitchy, electronic ambience of ‘Cassius, -‘ may set itself against the flourishing, all-enveloping harmonies that serve as the group’s calling card but it’s far too oblique in arrangement to easily slide into any genre, let alone folk.
Although previous work had a tendency towards the complex – often seeking to build an acute and immaculate sense of place and atmosphere over getting straight to the point – ‘Crack-Up’ likewise takes this flair far further than it’s gone before. ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint’ is as winding as its title, a multipart epic that starts out as a muttered introspection before cascading into something far grander. Although previous efforts often found Fleet Foxes adding lengthy prologues or addendums to their pieces, once the song proper kicked-off, they were mostly happy to settle into groove and stick to it. ‘Crack-Up’, on the other hand, is at times almost distractingly fidgety, the album’s lengthier songs often refusing to stick with one idea for more than a few minutes.
It’s an admirable trait of the album and one that lends it reams of depth – with further intricacies revealing themselves to those with enough perseverance – but sometimes the album can start to appear a little convoluted, it’s own complexity occasionally getting in the way of the song itself. Such stumbles are a rare occurrence, though, and never enough to more than passingly mar a set of songs written with enviable maturity and dizzying resonance. ‘Crack-Up’ is certainly an album to be observed with as much attention as Pecknold has given to his wide array of literary influence. The album’s words are as carefully composed – and occasionally oblique – as the music they’re set to, leading to a record that requires careful listening and dedication to fully understand and appreciate.
However, any time invested in Pecknold’s world pays sumptuous dividends. ‘Helpnessness Blues’ was not an inaccessible record but it was one that fully bloomed only after numerous listens. It’s an album crafted with such depth that even six years on, it stands up to as much close scrutiny now as it did upon initial release. Only time will tell if ‘Crack-Up’ is capable of providing such long-term companionship to dedicated listeners, but if the album’s richly immersive presentation and elaborate structuring is anything to go by, it likely will.
One subtle but impactful quality that ‘Crack-Up’ owes not to past efforts but, rather, to new influences is a quiet tendency towards to the experimental. While the band doesn’t quite veer into out-and-out avant garde-ism, there are certainly deeply unexpected touches that can initially jar before revealing themselves as something far smarter and more effective than can first appear. The starting moments of the album give a good indication of this; Pecknold’s subdued mutterings don’t quite gel with the equally timid guitar – but what can initially appear bizarre and inexplicable starts to make sense when viewed in the context of the album as a whole. ‘Crack-Up’ is a record with an understated but deep-seated undercurrent of disquiet and it’s these unexpected moments that almost subliminally reinforce that.
There are other clever touches, too – ‘Helplessness Blues’ ended on an unresolved note and ‘Crack-Up’s opening moments resolve that in a move that could be taken as both a quiet nod to earlier work and a symbolic step forward into fresh new territory. It’s a small touch but such rewards for the die-hard fans – sonic easter-eggs, if you will – are dotted throughout the album in a warm gesture to those who are guaranteed to give the album the not-inconsiderable time it deserves.
‘Crack-Up’ is a deeply rewarding album that explores an expansive vocabulary of human emotion. Fleet Foxes have long crafted their work with an almost obsessive eye for detail and a neuanced understanding of their craft; that’s the case here more than ever before. ‘Crack-Up’ is a work of too much depth to simply be declared the best – or otherwise – of their work, this early into its release upon the world, but it is blindingly clear that not only is ‘Crack-Up’ an album that stands as distinct as any of its predecessors but also sits comfortably in their brief but refined discography. For an album as ceaselessly searching as ‘Crack-Up’, it ends with a fittingly ambiguous piece of foundsound – perhaps someone running down a flight of stairs. During an informal Q and A on reddit, Pecknold said that he “wanted [the album] to end by leaving it behind, moving on, out of the room or the mind where the album takes place and on into a new landscape”. For a band which has always looked forward with a youthful yearning, it’s a perfect way to end the album.
The full track-listing for ‘Crack-Up’ is as follows…
I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar
– Naiads, Cassadies
Third of May / Ōdaigahara
If You Need To, Keep Time on Me
On Another Ocean (January / June)
I Should See Memphis