In September 2016, Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold had a dilemma. While mocking up meticulous designs for ‘Crack-Up’, the Seattle band’s first album in six years, he discovered fellow choral indie lot Local Natives had been using the same font as him. “What would u do?” he asked fans on Instagram. “Would u hold fast or find a new font?”
He stood firm with SimSun, but other than its typeface nothing about ‘Crack-Up’ is ordinary. Chief songwriter Pecknold has evolved the tender-hearted folk-rock of Fleet Foxes’ first two albums into something incredibly cerebral – often alienatingly so – and most readily comparable to the sprawling work of folk genius Joanna Newsom, with whom he toured in 2016.
Gone are the buoyant odes to sunrise and the gorgeous instrumentals named after Seattle’s waterfalls. In their place stands a collection of impressionistic, multi-part songs that abound in literary and artistic references, draw on musical traditions from around the world, and chart everything from Pecknold’s conflicted psyche (‘Crack-Up’) to the protests responding to the shooting of Alton Sterling in July 2016 (‘Cassius, -’). Melodies bleed into one another both between tracks and within them, making the listening experience feel almost classical.
Album opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ epitomises this approach: it jumps from mantric grumbling to glorious string-backed epiphany, with a scene-setting sample of the New York subway thrown in for good measure. We hear Pecknold quite literally step outside, through a door; we hear the band replicate a percussive water technique from the South Pacific island Vanuatu; and, highlighting just how far the band have come, we even hear a sample of the band’s simple 2008 ditty ‘White Winter Hymnal’.
Lead single ‘Third of May / Odaigahara’ is even more complex. Named in honour of bandmate Skyler Skjelset’s birthday, this near nine-minute account of Pecknold and Skjelset’s strained friendship spans everything from the band’s jubilant beginnings in 2007 to the dire end of their ‘Helplessness Blues’ tour in Japan in 2012, when drummer Josh Tillman quit to focus on his music as Father John Misty. (“We all started hating each other,” he said in 2015.) As the blustering, Goya-referencing folk of the ‘Third of May’ segment shifts into ‘Odaigahara’, Pecknold paints the band’s indefinite hiatus with an eloquently inconclusive swirl of Japanese melodies.
Just as labyrinthine are the serene ‘I Should See Memphis’, where a growling Pecknold ums and ahs between the ancient and the modern world, or the sublime title track ‘Crack-Up’, where he calls on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous essay to sum up existential crisis as cracking “like a china plate”.
That same Fitzgerald essay points out: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” – and with its deft layering, ‘Crack-Up’ as a whole rises to that challenge. Some may be unconvinced by the ambitious leap Fleet Foxes have made on album three, but there’s really no doubting the first-rate intelligence behind this uncompromising and ever-changing piece of work.