The Long Road to Crack-Up
I. Where Have We Been?
On the strength of their first two records, the eponymous debut and (especially) Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes came to be the poster band for a now-pervasive strain of beautiful, lush, and pleasant indie rock. They took the Shins’ mantle in a more folky, more intricate, and less pop-influenced direction, but dropped the acerbic edge of James Mercer’s lyrics. They lined up nicely with their contemporary indie darlings in Justin Vernon’s Bon Iver project, creating music that was ambitious yet accessible, contributing to an ever-growing blurry line between the independent and the mainstream.
None of this is or was a bad thing. Fleet Foxes made two good records and deserved much of the praise they garnered. And the blurring between what’s indie and what’s mainstream has been a long-standing point of teeth gnashing and contention. But what’s interesting about Fleet Foxes (and, similarly, Bon Iver) is just how high their star rose. They are the kind of band for whom a six-year break between records creates a frenzy in the band’s fanbase. The release of their new record, Crack-Up, not on Sub Pop but on Nonesuch instead, is as much of an event as we can get out of album releases these days. And with all that fanfare, especially in the long shadow of the epic Helplessness Blues, comes a lot of expectation. Singer Robin Pecknold seems to, incidentally, reference this in the album’s first track. On “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” Pecknold admits to creating a “myth I made you measure up to.” Though he’s talking about more personal expectations, the same could be true of the band at this point. They have been made into this tent-pole band, one that has their own mythology to live up to in every release. And so the first thing we have to confront on Crack-Up is breaking through the wall of noise that is what this record should be, what anticipation might want to shape it into, and what it actually is.
II. Where Have We Come To?
So what is Crack-Up? Well, it’s another attempt at expansion for the band, and in a way seems a next logical step. It’s got some of the pristine, intimate songcraft of Fleet Foxes, but doubles down on the grandeur and lush orchestration of Helplessness Blues. This is a far more intricate record than that one, one that seems to want to be heard — at least in many places — as one sweeping piece. It’s also an album that wants to shake up the formula a little, carving dark crags into the band’s usual sunburst sound. The album opens with Pecknold nearly whispering, taking on a low-key mumble, before opening up his layered vocals to their usual, expansive heights. The band returns to these whispered moments often, like deep ruts in an otherwise flat country road, and the effect is interesting if jarring. It’s nice to see Fleet Foxes mine darker textures on these songs, and it sets the ambitions of Crack-Up apart from the bright spectacle of Helplessness Blues.
But the way in which songs dovetail into one another, or how several titles (see the first track’s name above) get tied together, can also distract from the album’s greatest strength: it’s best, most clearly defined songs. The return of Fleet Foxes mirrors, in a distorted way, the return of Bon Iver. Bon Iver’s latest record, 22, A Million, is interesting but also stuck between being a collection of songs and being one long piece. The album itself is still divided into tracks, but the tracks on that album have mostly incomprehensible names, and so confusion over what shape the album takes — is it a whole? Is it a mosaic? Are these truly separate, stand-alone songs? — can distract from what makes the album good.
Crack-Up isn’t the same kind of busted up sound 22, A Million is, but it suffers from sitting in this same limbo, between wanted to be a cohesive, fully integrated, Capital-A Album, and having a set of fully formed songs. What makes this complicated is that when the band settles into a well-written song, the scope of the whole album falls away in favor of the intimacy and pristine melodies of those moments. After the opener, the next three tracks of the album both stand apart and work together. “Cassius, -” starts overcast, with faint atmospherics adding a dark tone to the song as Pecknold’s melody unfolds. When the band comes in full, all rolling, chugging acoustics and clattering drums, the song is thrilling, a moment where Fleet Foxes champions the immediate charge of live-band energy over lush production. Because it turns out this band sounds plenty layered and intricate when they just flat-out play. “- Naiads, Cassadies” scrapes out the thick textures of the previous song, and lets guitar phrasings ripple out into space at odd angles. The song threatens to build and bust open in a typical way, but takes a left turn with some beautiful off-kilter piano work in the song’s second half. The next track, “Kept Woman,” is one of the finest songs the band has written to date. It starts on a simple piano and Pecknold’s voice, and plays in that wide open space for the whole song. Space is the secret strength of all these songs. Some clear it out to fill it up again, but the best moments play with spare instrumentation and clean melodies to see what work the echo on the edges of these songs can do. They’re also just affecting and catchy tunes in their own right.
These are hardly the only catchy moments. The first half of “Third of May/Ōdaigahara” is another charged moment. “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” is the kind of quiet folk that hearkens back to the charm’s of the band’s debut. “Fool’s Errand” is the closest the band comes to condensing their complex ambitions into a striking, lasting song. The problem is that these trees sometimes get lost in the forest. There’s a sense of indulgence that runs through this record, an over-layering and over-complicating of individual songs and the album as a whole. String sections don’t open up “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” or “– Naiads, Cassadies,” but instead they clutter them up and bury some of the more subtle parts of the songs. “Third of May” is bogged down by the trudging, heavy-handed layering of “Ōdaigahara.” And “I Should See Memphis” combines the whispered low-key moments — which lose their place in this record once better, proper songs take over — with the heavy use of strings. The tension at the heart of Crack-Up, and one that limits the album’s impact a bit, is between subtle moments/songs getting overshadowed by an overworked whole.
III. What Now?
That is not to say, in the slightest, that Crack-Up is a bad record. Far from it. But it is a record that tries to rise above the expectations created by the band’s past success. In doing so, it loses sight of where their past success came from. For all its grandeur, Helplessness Blues is at its best when Pecknold is writing tuneful folk songs. The lushness of instrumentation and layers highlights strong melodies and brings in subtle rhythms. The best parts of Crack-Up do away with the ambition of the epic, cohesive album in favor of great songs. And Fleet Foxes have not forgotten how to write great songs; that much is clear here. But the loftier production and compositional choices here often distract from the album’s best moments rather than shining a bright light on them. Crack-Up is a solid return after a long time off for Fleet Foxes, even if some of its loudest moments are overthought and confused. But those moments, though distracting, don’t totally blot out the finest songs here.
You can also order the album directly from the label here.