Fleet Foxes are a band who have always seemed, if not stuck in the past, then at least content to stay there awhile.
Many of their best songs like ‘Montezuma’ and ‘White Winter Hymnal’ sound like they could be re-interpretations of centuries-old folk songs, such is their simplicity. Add to this their effusive use of medieval paintings as cover art and quasi-monastic harmonies, and you might justifiably wonder whether Robin Pecknold wishes he was born in a different era – he did retreat into the woods of Washington during the gestation of this album, following the release of Helplessness Blues, way back in 2011.
So where, or rather when, have Fleet Foxes’ got to since then? Crack-Up represents something of a great leap forward. While it remains healthily analogue, the medieval simplicity has been replaced with the daring un-convention of the early 20th century and the modernist period of classical music. All these songs are embellished with orchestral string and horn sections, but like the period’s exemplars Stravinsky or Rachmaninoff, there are also crucial piano parts which do a lot of the melodic heavy-lifting. The structures of these songs are, by and large, linear and meandering too. They seem constituted by movements rather than verses and choruses – several are even collected into suites. They also share the period’s purposeful effort to confound convention and experiment, and not just at the level of zig-zagging structures – even individual melodies here seem designed not to resolve on the notes they suggest they are travelling towards.
Though the tracks here are denser, less direct, more stylistically and emotionally ambiguous, less folky, less guitar-based, less joyous and altogether more demanding than we have ever heard from Fleet Foxes before, they are no less accomplished. This bigger, more itinerant sound is impressive, containing moments of beauty, sadness, joy, and great force.
But the lack of straightforwardness can make it harder to latch onto tracks like you usually can with Fleet Foxes – there are few hooks, melodic or vocal. At times the unexpected twists and turns can feel more like demonstrations of ability than embellishments which heighten the impact of the track, most obviously on opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’. Elsewhere, rises and falls feel forced, while on second track ‘Cassius –’ time signature changes sap the opening’s momentum.
Robin Pecknold broke down the meaning of the lyric to ‘Third of May / Odaigahara’ on Genius, and it is astonishing how much background information and imagination one would need to fully comprehend it. You’d have to be familiar with Fleet Foxes’ chronology, the painting ‘Third of May’ by Goya, know that guitarist Skyler Skjelset was born on the third of May, and pick up on the fact that Pecknold’s changes in register correspond to changes in the temporal perspective of the narrator. I think it’s great when lyrics have deep, even hidden, meanings to decode, but this comes with the caveat that they must still be amenable to some kind of interpretation through listening alone – texts that have to be pored over are the realm of poetry, lyrics are for listening to.
While ‘Third of May…’ gets away with it, elsewhere it can be difficult to even hear what Pecknold is singing given the density of the music and all those singing in harmony with him. It is difficult to extract any kind of meaning from his words even when they can be deciphered, particularly on tracks like ‘If You Need to, Keep Time On Me’ and ‘Mearcstapa’. Though there is probably great meaning submerged there, and throughout, often there’s not enough on the surface for the listener to resonate with. At 55 minutes long, the level of concentration needed to remain engaged given the unconventional structures and abstraction can make it an exhausting listen.
In the end though, Fleet Foxes are good enough musicians to make this an enjoyable, if somewhat dislocated, listen – their harmonies and melodies are always strong, and they can craft awesome passages of music like the second half of ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’, and ‘Fool’s Errand’. This is a sophisticated piece of work, and challenging not in the sense that it is abrasive, but in that it requires intimacy and attention from the listener, yet never superficially entices you to come closer. It is an album that can be loved, but only after you’ve given it enough listens to absorb and anticipate its unintuitive changes, and pick out the details from those dense soundscapes. If you are a Fleet Foxes fan already, whether you like this album or not will depend on how heavily your appreciation relied on the sheer happiness of their earlier work, and its folk aesthetic – make no mistake, both those qualities are now gone. Its erudition confounds casual listening, but there is still plenty to admire and enjoy here.
Featured image: Pitchfork.