Nonesuch Records Inc.
by Mixtape Mandi
After six years of silence from the Fleet Foxes, we are blessed with Crack-Up, an album that possesses scattered musicality with a linear message: Sometimes it’s okay to be alone and within yourself, but understanding when to call on your friends for companionship is important. This is the struggle we see with frontman Robin Pecknold and his fight for the past few years; after claiming the band on hiatus back in 2012, he withdrew from music and decided to enroll in college courses at Columbia University. After going to school — he only has one semester left — and traveling for a bit, Pecknold was given the opportunity to open for Joanna Newsom’s tour last year as a solo act.
In various cities on this tour, Pecknold caught up with old members of Fleet Foxes: Christian Wargo, Casey Wescott, Morgan Henderson, and his long-time best friend Skyler Skjelset. With each visit, the same question came up: "Would you wanna bring the band back together again?" Eventually, Pecknold agreed, and he began writing and making plans for the new band; not new in the sense of lineup changes (although Helplessness Blues drummer Father John Misty is no longer with the band and is working on his own music), but new in the sense that they have graduated from their woodsy-folky stereotype of lush harmonies and campfire tunes. These boys had grown up and had seen some wild things, and they want to tell us about the hardships they’ve learned while they’ve been away.
Crack-Up begins with Pecknold singing, "I am all that I need," over a delicate finger-plucked guitar, as if he’s whispering. The album opener, "I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar" is a schizophrenic masterpiece, beginning with the image of Pecknold, huddled over a guitar by himself in his New York apartment, muttering lyrics to himself, and convincing himself that he is simply all he needs since his band began its hiatus. After a minute of Pecknold’s mumbling, it’s as if Pecknold’s memories of the band come flourishing back, with hits of overlaying guitars to the beat of a train track. The ascending vocal harmonies and the wall of sound in the instrumentation drift you off into a dream-like state of nostalgia, but it doesn’t last. It cuts from the flourishing guitars to Pecknold’s whispering, and back again; it’s as if Pecknold is trying to convince himself otherwise, as if to say, "Yes, I love those moments with my band and I’d like to be back with them, but I just really want to sleep and be by myself." Eventually, he admits to needing companionship as he sings, "Are you at home? I’ll come right now / I need to see you," like this vision has lit a spark inside him and he mustn’t ignore it. The song ends with sounds of waves crashing, a children’s choir singing the old Fleet Foxes classic "White Winter Hymnal," and words spoken by the band’s attorney (Pecknold shared this information with me during a listening party last month).
"Cassius, –" picks up with the waves crashing and subtle guitar plucking, yet introduces a hypnotizing soft organ in the pre-chorus. Familiar harmonies layer over the organ and push forward to a resounding chorus with syncopated, intricate drum beat. Hints of UK band Stornoway are evident in its tight harmonies, yet still remaining true to the Fleet Foxes norm. The offbeat emphasis in the chorus is catchy, and requires a few listens to really pinpoint where the beat lands. The song seamlessly and softly transitions into "– Naiads, Cassadies." The perfect companion to the previous track, "– Naiads, Cassadies" begins with curiosity: "Who stole the life from you? / Who turned you so against you?" Whether Pecknold is singing to himself or to a companion, it’s clear that he wants to get to the bottom of this mystery and help find whoever it is who is lost.
A somber piano introduces us to "Kept Woman," one of the darker tunes on the album. The arpeggiated minor chord on the piano keeps the tempo with the faintest hint of guitar, as Pecknold harmonizes with, "Too long ‘til the light of the morning / So unseen as light in a dream / Too long now to the rising," as if the sleepless night is haunting him, and all he wants to see is the sunrise to relieve him of his demons. And just as the sun starts to make its peak overtop the skyline, we hear a resounding major resolution in the music, leading the way into "Third of May / Odaigahara," which perfectly begins with "Light ended the night, but the song remained."
A song that represents the reunion of the band, the "Third of May" represents both Skjelset’s birthday and the release date of the previous album, Helplessness Blues, and "Odaigahara" is the last city the band played a show together. Serving as probably the most familiar material to the previous Fleet Foxes releases, the song is catchy, it’s moving, and it’s a breath of fresh air in the band’s six-year silence. It’s important to note that this song’s key is the same as "Helplessness Blues," therefore instilling a sense of familiarity not just with the band members, but with the listener as well. "Now back in our town as a castaway / I’m reminded of the time it all fell in line, on the third of May / As if it were designed, painted in sand to be washed away," is the perfect look at Pecknold’s cynical mind: the band has returned to home (whether that’s Seattle or New York) and is having laugh at how the previous release fell on Skjelset’s birthday, unsure it if was fate or purely coincidence. The song then moves into the second half, where we see the band at "Odaigahara," with loud electric guitars, crashing cymbals, and a baritone saxophone peeking through the chaos. Lyrics like "If I lead you through the fury, will you call to me?" and "To be held within oneself is deathlike, oh I know" serve to reiterate the album’s theme of isolation vs. companionship. The quiet ending to the song brings us back to Pecknold’s muttered, solo voice, like he’s ready to step out of the darkness and into the light.
A pleasant guitar greets us for "If You Need To, Keep Time On Me," where Pecknold begins with, "How could it all fall in one day? / Were we too sure of the sun?" It’s evident that this song is about companionship: he asks his friend to keep time on him — whether this applies to music or not — but later, Pecknold aids by saying "When I need to, I’ll keep time on you." A tinkering piano evident of Andy Shauf’s "The Magician" acts as the interlude between verses and choruses, while the harmonies of Pecknold and Wargo carry the song smoothly throughout. As one of the simpler songs on the album, its messages rings true and serves as the underlying theme to Crack-Up.
At the listening party for the album, Pecknold noted that the phrase "on the other ocean” (from the track "On Another Ocean (January / June)" is from the David Behrman album of the same name, an album he listens to when he flies on planes to calm his anxiety. He hauntingly sings "Wherever you run, you see all you leave behind you / Lies inside," to add the reassurance that you always take a bit of yourself to each new destination. The song then leads into a steady beat and electric guitars met with a strong brass section. This half of the song reminds of Father John Misty’s "Strange Encounter" with its flourishing string orchestration and lush ooh's nestled beneath a powerful singer; in this case it’s Pecknold’s bold voice, reaching for high notes. Wargo joins him on harmonies for “Too young,” until the song abruptly ends and is met with a sample of Mulatu Astatke’s "Tezeta (Nostalgia)".
The second single from Crack-Up, "Fool’s Errand" starts with lush instrumentation and Pecknold singing, "I knew you fine, sight dream of mine / But I know my eyes, they’ve often lied." At the chorus, the song leads into a flourish of atmospheric strings while Pecknold belts, "It was a fool’s errand" — sustaining the words "fool’s" and "errand" for dramatic effect. He admits that he was a fool to wait around for a sign to hit him, yet he waited around for it anyway. Just as we thought the song was over, we hear Pecknold and Wargo's harmonies an old piano as Wescott plucks away, a nod to "He Doesn’t Know Why" (from the band’s 2008’s self-titled debut) when he tinkered on piano after the song ended.
The album ends with its title track, "Crack-Up." "So the words won’t come / And the hand won’t touch / And the midnight sun doesn’t look like much," Pecknold and Wargo sing to set the tone for the song, which can be summed up in this phrase muttered before an explosive chorus: "I can tell you cracked like a China plate." In the Japanese art of Kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with lacquer, dusted or mixed with powdered gold, treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Pecknold is saying it’s okay to be cracked, broken, or flawed. The gold dust in those cracks help build your history to move forward, rather than disguise the mistake made. The anthemic chorus of "Crack-Up" ties up the loose ends from the album, met with Pecknold’s schizophrenic ins-and-outs of large, brash musical moments to hushed solo moments — even whispering "So, don’t resist," during one of them.
As the track quiets down toward the end, Pecknold sings, "All things change," and reassures the audience what we had been wondering all along: Is this the same Fleet Foxes from six years ago? In some ways, yes; but like a good wine, they’ve gotten better with age. And with that, we end the album with Pecknold running down a flight of stairs, off to the next adventure.
From the first flourishing minute of Crack-Up to the last piece of reassurance from Pecknold, this album is exactly what fans should be expecting after six years of wondering if we’d ever see another Fleet Foxes release. The band has let go of its traditional songwriting mold, one that Pecknold held so close to his heart, allowing for instrumental and melodic experimentation. It’s important to note that some of the songs on this album have up to 100 individual recorded tracks that have been stemmed down to 32 channels for mixing; whether that’s multiple vocal harmonies, or a layered string quartet to emulate a full orchestra, the days of simple campfire songs are over. Each Fleet Foxes album gets increasingly better than the last, and Pecknold has confirmed they’ve began plucking away at ideas for the next release. But for now, we have this hour-long storybook (and a slew of tour dates) to get us through until the next Fleet Foxes masterpiece.
Crack-Up takes a few listens to fully grasp everything that’s happening here, so don’t just take my word for it — play it on repeat this weekend through loud speakers with some friends. After all, if Pecknold taught us anything on this release, it’s that being alone is just fine in some circumstances, but sharing life’s beauty with friends is better than experiencing it alone.
Song You Need To Hear: "Third of May / Odaigahara"