Review Summary: Fleet Foxes get even more ambitious, and in the process establish themselves as possibly the greatest indie-folk act of the decade.
Where Fleet Foxes left off in 2011, Helplessness Blues
saw Pecknold and company looking inward for answers to an increasingly uncertain world – one that felt like it was beginning to crumble around them. At times, the lyrics turned out to be quite foretelling; such as in the confessional title track when Pecknold lamented his place in this world (“ What's my name, what's my station, oh, just tell me what I should do”
) and found himself following up that record’s astounding success by putting the band on hold and diving into academia, enrolling in four years of twentieth century art and literature studies. Pecknold has openly admitted to having social anxiety, so it makes some logical sense that in the face rising musical stardom, compounded by the normal pressures of young adulthood, he might take the introspective path of focusing on himself and his education. When he cried out, “I'll get back to you someday soon, you will see”
on the seminal “Helplessness Blues”, he once again turned out to be unknowingly prophesizing the future of the band, because after a six year layover, Fleet Foxes have finally returned.
It’s unlikely that Pecknold’s time at Columbia University afforded him the answer to all of life’s problems, but on Crack-Up
he does seem better equipped to handle all the mounting pressure. Whereas Helplessness Blues
seemed to identify and internalize sources of anxiety, Crack-Up
feels totally liberated. The stress fractures present on that album have split open into grand ravines, exposing a beautifully entropic landscape of swirling oceans, storm-ridden skies, and golden horizons. It’s as if Fleet Foxes have embraced the chaos of life – the anxiety, the internal and external pressures, the troubles of the world – and decided to face them head-on with a wink and a grin because, when it comes to life, it’s okay not to have an answer at all. That’s the whole premise of Crack-Up
: to break free from your own limitations, and make yourself. Fleet Foxes have done that here.
I am only owed this shape if I make a line to hold
To be held within one's self is deathlike, oh I know
But all will be, for mine and me, as we make it
With this newfound sense of liberation, Fleet Foxes have found a way to take the nearly perfect atmosphere of Helplessness Blues
and expound upon it creatively, musically, and intellectually. Crack-Up
is actually the better record because it’s more daring; there’s a progressive air to the entire experience that its predecessor only hinted at, while still retaining all of the dazzling, earthly beauty that the band has long been known for. Take ‘Cassius’ for example: the Helplessness Blues
version of that song likely would have concluded around the 3:50 mark, whereas Crack-Up
is represented by that extra minute of lush strings intertwined with stunning cascades of classical piano. The record is all about these small twists and ad-libs that shed a different light on the known formula. An even more obvious instance is the lead single ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’, which alters styles and signatures across three totally different movements to mark one of the most impressive and memorable moments in the band’s history. It begins with fluttering acoustic guitars and hopeful gestures (“aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves"”
) before transitioning towards electric guitar crescendos and percussion that responds at a furious pace. It sounds like give and take, almost a gallop
. The final few minutes are composed of an all instrumental outro, featuring earth tone acoustics and a drum/guitar interplay that feels like an expedition into dense, foggy woodlands. It’s definitely this album’s answer to ‘The Shrine / An Argument’, and it has the makings of a modern folk-rock epic. Crack-Up
is ripe with moments like these: ones that take the seemingly perfect definitions of Helplessness Blues
and bend them effortlessly. It’s gorgeous to behold.
As a whole, Crack-Up
feels like a long, winding journey. The album is always on the move, shape-shifting and reinventing itself as it spans a nearly hour long scope. A great deal of that sensation can be credited to the presence of multi-part suites such as the opener ‘I Am All that I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’, but the main reason Crack-Up
is so able to actively dodge stagnation is that it continually introduces new elements to its vivid, enveloping atmosphere. The way that ocean waves come crashing in during the closing portion of ‘Thumbprint Scar’ transport you to the image on the record’s front cover, and from there any listener is essentially just along for the ride – at the mercy of Fleet Foxes and their imaginative wit. Literally every single track
has a unique identifier, something that prevents it from being absorbed into the greater mass. For ‘Cassius’, it’s that aforementioned lush, string-laden outro, on ‘Naiads, Cassadies’ it’s the way the resplendent acoustic chords collide and dance around each other, on ‘I Should See Memphis’ the wood instruments provide a delectable contrast with Pecknold’s lower vocal register – and the list goes on. The best part about the diversity present across Crack-Up
is that it all feels perfectly at home. In the midst of the endless formula tweaking and inventive twists, there is nary an ill-advised departure or split-second of suggestive identity crisis. It’s all fresh, and it’s all Fleet Foxes.
It would have actually made more sense for the band to stay on course while following up on Helplessness Blues
– which is widely regarded as a modern day classic – but at the same time, that is what makes this equally as good / if not better
detour so exciting. The band has proven that neither their self-titled debut nor Helplessness Blues
represent their ceiling. Every release to date has become their new milestone, which is the sign of a band that has not only accomplished great things, but seems destined to continue defining this era of modern folk. Just as Simon and Garfunkel owned the genre in the 1960s, it would appear after three straight top-tier releases that the 2010s belong to Fleet Foxes. How about that.