Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up | Album Review
Indie rock band Fleet Foxes return with a demanding, yet rewarding comeback album, ‘Crack-Up,’ following a six-year hiatus.
Sometimes, an extended hiatus between albums is worth the wait. That is the case with indie-rock band Fleet Foxes, who return after a six-year hiatus. A lot changes in that amount of time but for Robin Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset, and company, it pays off. Crack-Up, the third studio album by the band, is a demanding listen, but ultimately, it proves to be a truly rewarding, comeback album.
“I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar”
“I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” commences Crack-Up ambitiously. The first listen is incredibly challenging – it’s hard to decipher where the band is going. For an opener, it instantly immerses the listener into their complex, complicated, programmatic world. During the first part, “I Am All That I Need,” it’s hard to decipher the lyrics (sans the booklet), which are sung indulgently, in an undertone. That problem fades on “Thumbprint Scar,” where the vocals are more exuberant, backed by forte, folksy production work, led by guitar. In the end, it’s triumphant to the nth degree.
“Cassius, -” is filled with numerous historical and social references. On the first verse, Pecknold poetically references the fallout of unjustified police shootings. On the second verse, he references the death of Muhammad Ali:
“I walked home, no words to say / Cassius, one month gone on his way / Who will lead us / And who remains to die?”
Robin Pecknold confirmed to Spin “Cassius, -” is about the protest of the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the death of Ali. It’s arguably more accessible than the opener, but still, chocked-full of complexity.
“- Naiads, Cassadies”
Arguably, up until this point, “- Naiads, Cassadies” is the most accessible song lyrically. The poetry remains firmly intact, but it’s much easier to read into and interpret. Here Fleet Foxes seem to take aim at female empowerment, in regards to strength in relationships. Pecknold poses the questions:
“Who stole the life from you? / Who turned you so against you? / …When he would sing, and offer the ring / What older voice said, ‘kiss it’?”
“Kept Woman” is a superb follow-up to “- Naiads, Cassadies,” keeping Crack-Up connected as a whole. Once again, relationships are considered. Anna, the female protagonist, has essentially sold herself short, according to the male narrator:
“Anna, you’re lost in a shadow there / Cinder and smoke hanging in the air / Oh and I know you’ll be / Bolder than me, I was high, I was unaware.”
Besides the fact that Anna, representative of some women, sells herself short, the picture is also painted showing the aloofness and narrow-mindedness of men. Kept Woman” is beautiful, ranking among the best.
“Third of May / Ōdaigahara”
Speaking of the best, the crème de la crème arrives with “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” “Third of May” served as the promo single from Crack-Up, clocking in at nine minutes. As a single, well, there’s nothing commercial about it, not that Fleet Foxes are commercial anyways. Despite its length, it’s epic. If you’re brave, attempt to decode the lyrics for yourself. If not, check out Pecknold’s annotations, explaining his brilliant use of homophones, coincidences, and various dates. In addition to the breathtaking, specific lyricism, the music is equally genius, shifting from major to minor, and incorporating Japanese music at the end (that’s where Ōdaigahara comes into play).
“If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” is more accessible, but retains superb songwriting. Pecknold and company offer a hint at the onset as to what the song is about with a particular date: January 20, 2017. That, friends, was the day that Donald J. Trump officially became the 45th President of the United States. Pecknold sings from the jump:
“How could it all fall in one day? / Were we too sure of the sun?”
The first question about “Mearcstapa” is what exactly is a mearcstapa? It is an old English word that literally translates to march stalker, but perhaps more accurately, it’s marsh stalker. According to Amanda Petrusich of Pitchfork, “Mearcstapa” (the song) is named after Grendel from Beowulf. Also, interesting, though not directly related to the song, Mearcstapa is Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory and Practical Application. Just FYI. In the context of the song, Pecknold focuses on the marsh stalker in the context of the sea, highlighting the words eyes (both verses) and lines (first verse) in particular.
Wordplay and exceptional poetry continue to thrive on “On Another Ocean (January / June),” where the ocean remains an integral part of the concept. As the title suggests, the song is set in January initially. The chorus, or perhaps the prudence of the words on the chorus, stands out:
“Wherever you run / You see all you leave behind you / Lies inside anyone you open.”
Highlight “Fool’s Errand,” the second single from Crack-Up, gives the album another approachable moment. It’s not simplistic, but there’s more of a straightforward sensibility compared to some of the other selections. The song is radiant through and through, particularly Pecknold’s lead vocals. The closing stands out in particular. Near the four-minute mark, there are chilling, a cappella, vocal harmonies, sung softly on “ooh.” An enigmatic piano concludes the song.
Pecknold sings tenderly, in an undertone on “I Should See Memphis.” Despite the softness and gentle nature of his pipes, the orchestration keeps the momentum strong behind him, particularly the driving acoustic guitar and the exquisite strings. The title track concludes this incredibly complex effort. “Crack-Up” is as intriguing as everything else. Highlights include the exuberance showcased on the second verse, as well as the horn orchestration backing the more mysterious third verse.
All in all, Fleet Foxes craft a gem with Crack-Up. It easily ranks among the very best albums of 2017. Furthermore, this effort was worth the six-year gap between it and Helplessness Blues. Still, it can’t be overstated that this album requires decoding and multiple listens for everything to sink in. Still, the risks and progressive approaches taken by Fleet Foxes pays off tremendously.
Gems: “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” “Kept Woman,” “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” & “Fool’s Errand”