When a band takes a hiatus of over half a decade, and during that time a disillusioned band mate leaves and rises to stardom on his own accord, with a sound and image just about as diametrically opposed as is possible, there emerges, quite naturally, some questions about what this new album might sound and feel like. With that said, Fleet Foxes’ new album Crack Up is no Helplessness Blues and surprise, surprise its certainly no Father John Misty.
The story between Fleet Foxes lead songwriter Robin Pecknold and ex-drummer Josh Tillman, now of Father John Misty fame, is not an original tale. Josh Tillman, tired of the the quaint folky image of the Fleet Foxes and the increasingly controlling and neurotic behaviour of Pecknold, decided to leave the band and went about pursuing his own music. If this division reminds you of a certain Lennon and McCartney the comparisons don’t stop there. Tillman embodies a lot of Lennon’s brash sarcasm; his penchant for satirical lyricism and provocative public behaviour seem a lot like what Lennon might have sounded like had he been born in 1985. Equally, Robin Pecknold possesses a lot of McCartney’s gifts, an incredible sense of melody, a knack for stunning harmonies and a conceptual ambition that holds up over an entire album. Given this analogy, it did always feel slightly easier to hate McCartney and his twee songs in contrast with Lennon’s cavalier arrogance. One thing does unite Tillman and Pecknold, however, they both take themselves and their music very seriously.
In the run up to the release of Crack Up, Pecknold made it very clear in interviews the amount of thought he had put into the name of the album and its lyrical and sonic content. During the hiatus he had gone back to study at Columbia and one can’t help but think that the one thing Fleet Foxes didn’t need was an injection of undergraduate philosophising. Crack Up, he patiently explained, was a reference to a group of essays of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald written in his middle age about a mental breakdown, his failing marriage and dwindling commercial success. The comparisons with Pecknold’s own life are not subtle. Pecknold goes on to say that the album is quite literally ‘cracked up’ and sudden changes in songs structures and sounds are supposed to represent a different frame of mind, time period or person.
The first song “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” is an example of when this goes well. It starts with a bristly acoustic guitar and Pecknold’s inebriated voice before bursting into loud stomping pianos stabs, percussion and violins. At other moments we hear samples of Pecknold walking up stairs singing to himself and at the end we hear in the background a high school performance of “White Winter Hymnal” taken from his Instagram. The song ventures back and forth between these timbres and they remain effectively unnerving and joyful upon every listen. Lyrically, this opening track declares a darker side to Fleet Foxes, reflecting on his own controlling and insecure tendencies in one of the more subdued moments of the track muttering over an acoustic guitar -“ Are you alone? I don’t believe you // Are you at home? I’ll come right now // I need to see you.”
A lot of the album follows suit and there simply aren’t the kind of tracks like “Bedouin Dress” or “Blue Ridge Mountains” that could be expected on the previous albums. Instead, we have pulsating synth’s on Cassius, – another album highlight, and extended polyrhythmic jams on “Mearcstapa”. The best song on the album is also the song that embodies Pecknold’s ambitious goal most beautifully; “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is the album’s longest track and the melody in first act is one Fleet Foxes’ best ever. The second half of the song doesn’t disappoint either as it moves around and ‘cracks up’, sometimes with frenzy and sometimes with subtlety and poise. Ironically, the songs that most resemble tracks from previous Fleet Foxes work are the least effective, not only do they feel out of place but they feel stale and hackneyed, “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” and “Kept Woman” are prime examples.
One could make the argument that in becoming more “progressive”, (this album flows together as one entity and is complete with song titles full of punctuation *cough Bon Iver cough*) Fleet Foxes have just doubled down on what made them so starkly different to Father John Misty in the first place, but the result isn’t so easily derided. Crack Up doesn’t have as many songs that can bring an unknowing smile like on their eponymous debut, nor is it an album as faultless and coherent as Helplessness Blues, but what it offers is ultimately more interesting than them both.