It’s an oversimplification, sure, but you could say that Fleet Foxes singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold went the Rivers Cuomo route after the band’s 2011 album Helplessness Blues, retreating from the music business and enrolling at Columbia University. Whether or not his recent studies have informed his latest music is hard to say — Fleet Foxes have always been a brainy bunch, complete with arcane historical and philosophical references — but they certainly haven’t retreated from those tendencies on their new album, Crack-Up.
Complete with a title cribbed from a 1936 collection of essays from F. Scott Fitzgerald (your move, Colin Meloy), Fleet Foxes seem to have doubled down on the busy, complex indie folk they’ve been churning out since their 2006 debut, EP. Pecknold’s deep dives are not just lyrical; the music is chock full of dense idiosyncrasies that recall the lush harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel, the cavernous sonic layering of classic Phil Spector, and the multifaceted, long-form song structure of progressive rock. Not that this is King Crimson we’re talking about here — if anything, Crack-Up seems more reminiscent of the type of prog-folk that the Decemberists toyed with on their ambitious song cycle The Crane Wife.
By essentially throwing out the rule book, Pecknold opens up Crack-Up with the bold, audacious “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar”, a multi-part composition that starts out with some erratic singing/mumbling combination and random acoustic guitar strumming before full instrumentation kicks in and suddenly the propulsive Fleet Foxes band dynamic is in full swing. Despite the aforementioned desultory mumbling, Pecknold often lets his beautiful voice soar all over the album, cutting through the thick layers of acoustic guitar and primitive percussive rolls. As always, the production is filled with gorgeous reverberation, as if the entire album had been recorded in some enormous old European cathedral.
Fleet Foxes’ inexplicable, difficult-to-categorize stylings can occasionally invite comparisons to Radiohead (or at least, “Radiohead with more acoustic guitar”) and this comparison is never more accurate than on “Cassius”, where a light synthesizer pulse (alongside odd yet soothing aquatic effects) runs through the song. But they’re always able to imbue their unique sound into whatever arrangement is being tested. The CSNY harmonies are never more than an arm’s length away, even if they eventually tumble into dissonant orchestral swells.
Crack-Up can certainly be a challenging listen, but not unlike a thick postmodern novel, repeated visits are rewarding — preferably on a nice set of headphones — as all the bits and pieces ultimately reveal themselves. “Mearcstapa” is one of the album’s minor-key gems, driven by an odd time signature and a gradually building intensity, eventually ending with a brief string coda. Likewise, the epic “Third of May/Odaigahara” moves through a variety of tempi, instrumentation, and moods but never faltering, fueled by intense ambition. Mixing the quasi-art rock sensibilities with a folky psychedelia gives the song a bit of a Grateful Dead vibe, some combination of “Dark Star” and “Terrapin Station”.
There are moments on Crack-Up where Fleet Foxes might be accused of shoehorning obvious singles into the album’s sequence, but if anything, they provide a slight respite from the more ambitious song structures. “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” is a soothing balm of acoustic guitar, piano and flawless harmonies — despite the creeping, low-key noise that invades the song’s latter half and the song’s vaguely apocalyptic lyrics (“How could it all fall in one day? / Were we too sure of the sun?”). “Kept Woman” is fairly downbeat but employs a simple, uncluttered arrangement. “Fool’s Errand” is a fairly straightforward mid-tempo, full-band song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Helplessness Blues, but as always on Crack-Up, the band can’t stand still for too long: a minute before the song ends, it suddenly shifts into brief a cappella harmonies and some beautiful yet out-of-nowhere solo piano.
The title track closes the album gracefully with Pecknold’s vocals sharing space with a muted horn section. “I can tell you’ve cracked / Like a china plate.” The more casual listener may accuse Pecknold of being the one who’s cracking, but it’s a mistake to confuse a bold, intricate musical vision with an unstable grasp of the world. It couldn’t be further from the truth on Crack-Up as Fleet Foxes seem to have found the sound that defines them and their essential place in the world.
Crack-Up joins the ranks of albums like Homogenic, OK Computer and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — works by eclectic, established artists who decided to push boundaries even further and subsequently produced masterpieces. Fleet Foxes’ latest album will likely be added to best-of lists for years to come and championed as their knotty, complex magnum opus.