Artist: Fleet Foxes
In Brief: A strangely fractured, and yet strangely beautiful, third album from a band that was clearly restless to expand upon their old sound without completely abandoning it. My opinion of it seems to change with every listen, but it’s slowly inching in a more positive direction. I think this band is challenging its fanbase in mostly good ways.
Some bands, especially in the world of indie rock, have an overall sound and aesthetic that can take a long time for me to warm up to. Others, I instantly fall in love with. I’ll always remember Fleet Foxes for being a band that I was dead wrong about on first impression, due to their music being described to me with terms like “lo-fi” that all but guaranteed I wouldn’t connect with it. But then when I actually heard it for myself, I was so overwhelmed by the gorgeous vocal melodies and the rich instrumental interplay that I felt immediately transported to a special place deep in the woods somewhere. Their first two studio albums, the self-titled and Helplessness Blues, not only ended up as beloved records in my collection, but as my absolute favorite albums of 2008 and 2011, respectively. The guys amassed a pretty sizable fanbase during they heyday of “folk revival” when those two albums came out, then seemed to disappear just as a third album was supposed to be on the horizon, leaving the revival they were a big part of to sputter out in their absence. (And leaving me grateful that I had the good sense to go see them perform live in 2011 before their lengthy hiatus.) Perhaps that revival didn’t end because of their absence, specifically, but it was clear to me that if and when these guys ever reunited, they’d return to a very different musical climate than the one they left, and they’d have to adapt in some way.
I didn’t fully understand the reasons for the band’s hiatus at the time, but it turns out lead singer and primary songwriter Robin Pecknold decided to go back to college for a while, and I guess there was some sort of a distance or even a falling out between him and longtime friend Skyler Skjelset, with whom he formed the band over a decade ago, which has since been resolved. Meanwhile, drummer Josh Tillman left the band to reboot his solo career as Father John Misty, arguably now a bigger name in the indie-sphere than the band he departed from. It was a season of change and uncertainty for the band, and probably not the best climate for them to force out a new record if they weren’t totally feeling it. So as excruciating as it was for me, wondering if these guys would ever get back together, I’m glad they waited until they felt the timing was right. Their third album, intriguingly titled Crack-Up, is certainly the type of thing that’s going to take a lot of work for fans like me who instantly fell in love with their previous records to get used to, but there’s no hint of anything on this record feeling rushed, or even an ill-conceived attempt to hop on board a current trend. These guys seem to exist in their own little enclave outside of the pressures of time, and as I puzzle over this record, I have no doubt that every note of it, even the faintly audible stuff I dreaded their music would be full of when I first stumbled across them, was painstakingly crafted and meant to sound exactly the way it sounds and have probably a deeper and more personal meaning than 90% of their listeners would ever be able to unearth.
Did I give you more than a passing hint that this was a difficult record to listen to? I don’t want to overplay my hand here and suggest that they’ve come up with some avant-garde, genre-busting, so-artsy-fartsy-nobody-could possibly understand-it reinvention of musical genres as we know it. I wouldn’t even place it at Radiohead‘s usual level of “difficult” in terms of the adjustment of expectations it asks of their existing fans. But at times, there does seem to be an almost passive-aggressive desire on Robin’s part to subvert all of the pretty and layered and fantastical things we loved about the band. Not throughout the whole record, of course – you’ll still get plenty of driving acoustic guitars and ethereal layered backing vocals and lush instrumentation, just not always in the places you’d expect. But sometimes you’ll get the creepy, low-pitched whisper of a lonely, dejected man who can barely muster up the strength to speak up. Sometimes that happens for a few unsettling seconds in the middle of all of those majestic sounds I described above – hence the term “Bipolar-fi” that I coined in the title, because it’s not lo-fi all the way through, but it has a weird habit of jumping into and out of that aesthetic with little warning.
Crack-Up certainly lives up to its name, in that more of its songs seem to be presented in fragments that can shift to an entirely different movement without warning, or spill over unexpectedly into the following track, defying typical notions of how songs should be self-contained and have identifiable start and end points. I mean, they all do still have those because time is linear, and it’s not like the band didn’t have smaller fragments of songs floating in the margins between their main songs before. Nor is this the first time they’ve expressed themselves in more of a “prog rock” fashion, with long and somewhat tumultuous suites. A quick glance at the tracklisting makes it clear that they feel no need to hide this loose categorization of what constitutes a “song”. The 11 tracks on this record could comprise ten songs, or they could comprise fourteen or more, depending on your interpretation. Either way, it’s a lot to dive into, and I have to commend the band for not shortchanging us after such a long absence.
Still, despite how much I admire their ambition here, I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of fatigue with Crack-Up. Even the most challenging moments such as “The Shrine / An Argument” emerged pretty quickly as personal favorites for me on their past records… and shoot, my all-time favorite Fleet Foxes song, “Ragged Wood”, may as well be two separate songs mashed together. But on this record, I feel like I’m having to brute-force some of these songs into my memory due to how some of them shy away from having more obvious hooks, or else what would be a familiar and pleasing refrain keeps getting interrupted in odd ways. At times I feel like the more ragged approach to songwriting conflicts with the effortless melodies that a lot of their songs used to have, to the point where what’s supposed to be a powerful climax in a few songs leaves me kind of cold, because the layers don’t seem as infinite and reflective as they did before, and the guitars furiously strumming keep hitting the same chords again and again. Structural complexity seems to crowd out instrumental complexity, if that makes any sense. There are still some gorgeously baroque moments that I’m absolutely over the moon for, but there are also a handful of songs, particularly in the back half of the record, that I’m really struggling to care about one way or the other. And that’s distressing, considering how there were maybe only one or two tracks out of twelve on Helplessness Blues that I didn’t really connect with, and I’d be hard pressed to pick out a lowlight on their self-titled. I keep telling myself to give it more time and the beauty of those songs will somehow reveal itself… but I gotta be honest, at times it feels like a chore. (Strangely enough, in a completely different way than listening to Father John Misty feels like a chore. It’s mind-boggling to me how that worked out.)
I have no complaints about Robin’s lyrical skills on this record. Hints of mythical characters and far-flung, exotic locales are sprinkled throughout the song titles and alluded to in many of the lyrics, drawing complex analogies that I’d probably have to be the guy or at least read some solid chunks of his diary to fully understand. I don’t mind not understanding them, so long as I can understand what words are actually being sung, which is perhaps my biggest problem with this record (though to be fair, it’s not an entirely new complaint where Fleet Foxes are concerned, as their few previous songs which didn’t rely on stacking up the backing vocals could sometimes barely pass a whisper). Based on what I can understand, the lyrics seem to be long on imagination and short on cliches, as if a fragmented idea that didn’t totally make sense even to its writer was seen as a better thing to express, rather than going for an obvious rhyming couplet every time. A few songs on Helplessness Blues kind of veered into predictable, everyman territory where the lyrics were concerned, so I’m glad that there seems to have been a concerted effort to sidestep that here. Regardless of whether I come to love this album as much as Fleet Foxes’ first two, I’m pretty sure it’ll keep me interested enough to keep trying to piece it all together, and I think that’s the mark of an extremely talented group of artists.
1. I Am All I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar
To say that the opening track is a bit of a rollercoaster would be an understatement. This thing starts off with what is, for me at least, one of the record’s most off-putting moments: a lo-fi verse grumbled by Robin in a low, mumbling tone of voice with only the dullest of acoustic guitar accompaniment. It would have tempted me to turn up the volume just to hear what was being sung if I wasn’t already wise to the band’s tricks. I knew this thing was gonna get huge in short order, and it does so more abruptly than most Fleet Foxes songs would. When the song cuts from sad-sack Robin to full-band glory, it seems to do so right in the middle of his opening thoughts, and suddenly we’re airborne, with confidently strummed acoustic chords and layered backing vocals that almost rival my first exposure to the band on “Sun Is Riding”. Yet somehow the layering doesn’t quite seem as deep as either that or the high point of their second album’s opener, “Montezuma”. This song – with its three parts apparently labeled out of order, as the phrase “Thumbprint Scar” seems to pop up in its second and longest section – is meant to introduce us to the “fractured” nature of Crack-Up, and mood-wise it accomplishes what it sets out to, with the incredibly jarring back-and-forth between a lonely, depressed man singing in an unflatteringly low tone and the full band doing their usual, larger-than-life folksy madrigal thing. It plays like a conversation at times, with the rest of the band trying to cheer him up, and I’d imagine that the contrast would be even more impressive in a live setting. However, it does make it difficult to hear what’s actually going in on several segments of the song, which is why this one isn’t a total home run for me. The final segment, which I can only assume is the “Arroyo Seco” part, is mostly instrumental, and if you listen carefully you’ll realize that the handclaps and the vocals in the background are actually a sample of an acapella group covering their now-classic “White Winter Hymnal”. That’s how you know a band is struggling with their identity as a part of larger pop culture – when they start getting self-referential like this within their own recordings. Fleet Foxes’ commentary on themselves is subtler than most, I guess. (A weird side effect of this is that it makes me want to pause the album so that I can go listen to Pentatonix‘s awesome cover of that song.)
2. Cassius, –
The gentle sound of running water makes for a nice segue into this song, which begins with the humming pulse of a synthesizer – a weird element to throw into a Fleet Foxes song, for sure, but the weird thing is that it actually fits in believably without the electronic aspect of it dominating the song. It’s an effective backbone for a song that builds up from gentle ambiance to genuine rhythmic power, as the acoustic guitars, drums, and vocal harmonies slowly take over, and the rhythm begins to shift away from the strict 4/4 grid established in the beginning, and then back again. You could ignore the lyrics completely and this would stand on its own as an incredibly beautiful song, but now that I’ve dug into it, I’ve found a whole other layer to it, as I’ve realized that Robin’s thoughts about “When guns for hire open fire”, the people around him being “unaffected by the violence” and his identifying with a man who had “a wife, a son, a son, a son, and a daughter” are actually references to the shooting of Alton Sterling by Baton Rouge police a little over a year ago (probably much less than that at the time it was written). I’ve never known Fleet Foxes to get political before, and while this one takes some unraveling, it’s nice to see them showing some solidarity with those trying to elevate the honest discussions we need to have about police brutality in this country. It’s weird to me now that it happens within such a gorgeous song – especially when you consider the jaw-dropping outro which heads into classical territory with multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson wielding some woodwinds and a violin. This whole thing sounds like it’s heading for one heck of a powerful –
3. – Naiads, Cassadies
– anti-climax. The transition from the second track to its conjoined neighbor is as abrupt and awkward as the use of punctuation in the two song titles implies. Musically, sure, there’s enough continuity that you can tell the two songs are meant to flow together as a suite. But the sudden drop in tempo and energy level makes this song feel a bit pedestrian by comparison. I do like how prominent the bass is here, and how the song takes a brief detour with a piano solo and some modest key changes in its bridge. It’s also worth noting that the lyrics here, asking “Who stole the life from you?” and “Were any more complicit?” could be read as tying into the theme of inequality and brutality from the previous song, while this track, if taken on its own, seems to be more of a commentary on gender roles and how women are often treated as pretty prizes for men instead of as their own beings with their agency to determine what they will do with their lives. I like that a band made up entirely of white men isn’t afraid to comment on this stuff and express more progressive, empowering viewpoints on behalf of those treated as lesser. Still, in terms of the music, this track is a bit of a letdown compared to what I thought the previous one was building up to.
4. Kept Woman
If you can forgive the odd intro, which sounds like it was played on a mandolin in desperate need of tuning (and which is technically part of the previous track, I just noticed), then this track is far and away the most gorgeous thing on the record – and an obvious candidate for my short list of all-time Favorite Fleet Foxes songs. I try not to borrow phrasing from other critics and instead put things in my own words, but I have to give credit to Anthony Fantano of YouTube channel “theneedledrop” for his description of this song as “a religious experience”. It really does feel like one, due to how spaciously beautiful the arrangement is. Whether solo or backed by his buddies, Robin’s vocals echo in an ethereal way, with the looping piano melody in triple meter making it feel like you’ve entered a sacred, meditative sort of space. The drums wisely sit this one out, as it needs to be a solemn moment, though there’s enough complexity in the backing instrumentation if you listen more closely that I would never call this a “simplistic” arrangement, even if it’s probably one of the easiest entry points for a fan of the band’s previous work. The lyrics, which seem to mourn a woman losing her identity and being burned in some sort of a crucible, can definitely be read as pro-feminist, and they seem to build off of the previous song due to the tragic portrait they paint of her gradually losing the will to live. Robin seems to confess that while he’s not the guy currently keeping her under his thumb, he may have been guilty of treating her as less than human or silencing her somehow in the past, and you can hear the sadness in his voice as he sings this solemn hymn of regret. It’s one thing to call out equality and mistreatment of others by people who look like you, but it takes a lot of self-awareness to realize, and repent of, the ways in which you were complicit in that treatment. I think it’s interesting how this song is mostly minor key, yet it has a very resolute major chord at the very end. I’m not sure how to interpret that.
5. Third of May / Ōdaigahara
Most people’s actual entry point into this album was probably this song, which is paradoxically the album’s longest track and its first single. To be fair, it starts off with more immediacy than anything else on the record, as the vocals, drums and guitars kick into right away without any sort of intro, making sure that the refrain of the song sticks in our heads even though the lyrics never really seem to repeat like a traditional “chorus” would. Like the opening track, this one does jump back and forth between its folk/rock core and a few quieter, more meditative moments when Robin is by himself. For the most part, these aren’t as jarring this time around, even if I am still mildly annoyed by their whispery nature at times. The lyrics help me to make some sense of the musical turmoil, because they seem to describe the aforementioned falling out between Robin and Skyler, which apparently came to a resolution on Skyler’s birthday, the third of May. It’s a thing of beauty to hear both of their voices rising to the heavens in conjunction with the rest of the band that they managed to pull back together, especially when the song changes up its melody for a more electric guitar-driven bridge that pushes Fleet Foxes about as far into “rock” territory as they’re willing to go. The rising and falling dynamics seem more satisfying as the song reaches its climax, and I would imagine that when this builds to a peak somewhere around minute five, that’s where the accessible, “single” portion of this song was meant to end. The final segment of the song abruptly switches to Robin mumble-singing a wayward melody that doesn’t seem to follow from what came before it in any logical way, and you can almost picture the band all standing there, bewildered, having suddenly stopped what they were doing upon realizing that their leader had spontaneously decided to start singing a completely different song. They meekly follow along with a little bit of moog synthesizer and some gentle strumming of acoustic guitars, which turns into an extended, “watery” sort of outro that drags the song out to well over eight minutes. While the stream-of-consciousness song structure is interest to me from an academic perspective, I have to admit that this last part isn’t terribly interesting to me on repeat listens. As beautifully textured as it is, melodically speaking, it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere.
6. If You Need to, Keep Time on Me
The mid-section of the album is where I feel like I start to have a hard time fully investing in a lot of the individual songs. We’re back in ballad mode here, with a song whose main melodic hook sticks out pretty much immediately and which feels like a much more “conventional” composition compared to what’s around it. Once again, the piano leads the way, this time with a softly strummed acoustic guitar accompanying. The presentation just isn’t as interestingly layered this time around, nor is there as much happening in the background (though the piano playing does get a little more complex if you really listen for it). This song repeats its title several times, not really changing up the melody much except for a brief dip into minor key in the middle, and the repetitive nature of it combined with me not knowing what it meant to “keep time” on someone and the song not really explaining it, kind of locked me outside of this one for a while. I understand now that they’re using the way a lead instrument sets a rhythm for the rest of an ensemble to follow as a metaphor for friends keeping each other accountable, and that this is a follow-up to the resolved conflict from the previous song, with the two men vowing to never let the communication between them break down again. That’s admirable, but I wish this song had a little more going for it so that it felt like more of a completed thought instead of an extended refrain.
I really want to like this song. Texture-wise, all of the elements are there to make it interesting – some dark, skeletal, brooding bass and electric guitar setting a pattern at the beginning for the song to follow, some interesting warped vocals creeping into that intro that remind me of something I heard once in a more experimental Animal Collective track, a very unusual chord progression, and some classical elements like horns and strings creeping in towards the end just to up the ante on its otherworldliness. But for a song whose composition seems so unconventional, it gets repetitive fast. There are only two verses of lyrics here, which are completely lost on me since I don’t know what or where “Mearcstapa” is (having looked it up, it apparently means “March Stepper”, and I guess it’s some sort of a Beowulf reference, but I still don’t know how that figures into a song that seems to be mostly about wanderlust and loneliness). I also feel like the vocal melody goes to some odd places just to fit the chord progression, almost as if this started as a mellow instrumental jam session and they felt like they had to add lyrics to it. I respect what the band is doing here… I just don’t happen to enjoy it all that much.
8. On Another Ocean (January / June)
As you might ascertain from the title, this song is another suite broken into multiple segments – I’m guessing in this case that the slow, moody first part is meant to be the “January” section while the more resolute, rhythmic second part is “June”. The first part, with its wandering piano melody and its vocal melody never quite seeming to settle into something all that structured, feels appropriately lost at sea. As with a lot of the aspects of this record that don’t really do much for me, I’m sure the repetitive motion of the piano combined with the lack of a strong vocal hook to latch onto is intentional, as it’s meant to describe the writer’s mental state and not to be ear candy. When the song picks up steam in the second half, I’d still characterize it as mid-tempo, but the addition of a trombone and some backing harmonies (which briefly remind me of some of this group’s antecedents from the 60s and 70s, like The Eagles or America) liven things up a bit. Just as soon as I start really getting into the groove, though, it’s suddenly over, leaving a sample of what I’m guessing is an old jazz recording as a bridge between this and the next track. As random interjections of jazz into the group’s indie folk style go, I’m much more appreciative of the atonal sax heard in “The Shrine / An Argument” now that I’ve heard a less audacious attempt to bridge the two genres here.
9. Fool’s Errand
For me, this song is a bright spot in the back half of the album. My previous mention of “The Shrine / An Argument” is no coincidence, as the driving rhythm of this song’s verse (which sounds like either 6/4 or 7/4 trying to trick you into thinking it’s standard 4/4) really reminds me of the anguished “In the morning” mid-section of that song. This one pulls a neat trick by changing up its rhythm to something much more fluid and ethereal for the chorus, though, as if to break out of a rigid way of thinking as Robin reminds himself: “It was a fool’s errand/Waiting for a sign/But I can’t leave until the sight comes to mind.” The song seems to describe a state of mental paralysis in which a person is torn between two mutually exclusive options and is waiting in vain for some sort of sign from above to tell him what to do. He seems to finally own up to the fact that he himself is responsible to make the decision to the best of the ability that the brain given to him by (God, Gaia, the universe, fill in your favorite deity here) can muster, and live with the consequences instead of having some invisible being to use as a scapegoat if things don’t work out. I love how this song builds to a satisfying payoff, though I have to admit its outro once again feels dropped in from a completely different universe than the rest of the song. There’s a bit of somber vocal humming that reminds me of one of those solemn moments on Mew‘s And the Glass Handed Kites album, leading into a mournful piano outro that sounds like it could have been the result of a sudden mood swing on a Fiery Furnaces album. It’s they came up with a bunch of little instrumental snippets in the studio that never coalesced into full songs of their own, and they felt compelled to jam these into the record somewhere.
10. I Should See Memphis
There aren’t any Fleet Foxes songs that I outright hate. But this one comes dangerously close to being the first of their songs that, beyond me just not really caring about it like a few of the earlier tracks, I actively dislike. The acoustic guitars create a pleasant enough melodic backdrop here, as do the strings, but Robin’s back in the same low-pitched mumble mode we heard in snippets in the earlier songs, and despite a few moments where he threatens to drift into falsetto or the other guys start to add a bit of vocal layering, he stubbornly clings to the most disinterested performance he can muster throughout most of the song. I know that once again he’s trying to depict a period of boredom and depression that he want through the opening lyrics “Endless vacation felt like perdition” make it clear that he was tarting to feel completely unmoored during his time away from the band. And with all that free time and (presumably) disposable income with which to explore, he gives us the impression that all he really accomplished was a list of places that he should go and see for himself… you know, at some point. Eventually. Bucket list stuff. No hurry, really. I get the sentiment he’s trying to convey here, and there are some lyrical references tying this song back to “Cassius” and possibly a few other themes from earlier in the album. But jeez, is this one a downer to listen to. Not in the engagingly depressing way that some dark and moody songs are. It’s just a big buzzkill. I also don’t have the first clue what’s up with the outro, which has the faint echo of a much more impassioned vocal melody from Robin playing underneath what sounds like the roar of a passing jet engine. As it gets louder and louder, I can only assume this is the prelude to a larger-than-life closing track a la “Grown Ocean”, but –
– NOPE! The title track opens on just about as inert of a note as it possibly can, with a rather quietly strumming guitar ruminating over the same two chords while the guys, who are thankfully back in vocal harmony mode, try to use the combined force of their vocals to lift what turns out to be a rather immovable object, in terms of the song they’ve constructed for themselves. This song just drags for me. It feels like it’s struggling to get somewhere interesting but it’s mired in some sort of a tar pit that it can’t break free from. Even when the vocal harmonies are at their most beautiful as the song builds to its climax, I feel like the guitars are doing almost nothing helpful, just piling on sheer force as the bang on the same chord again and again – and keep in mind that “forceful” by Fleet Foxes standards is still rather easygoing from the point of view of most rock bands. I feel like there’s a lot of meaning that you could mine from the lyrics if you wanted to, as they refer to broken bones that will never quite heal properly and a few references to philosophical and mythological characters that I’m sure would shed a lot of light on the fractured state of mind this song is trying to communicate. I guess I just expect a lot from title tracks – they should be highlights of the albums they come from instead of stubbornly pounding the worst tendencies expressed by the artist into our heads again and again. That’s what this one seems to do – it promises a hell of a lot more than it delivers. Since I’m not as enthralled with the climax this time around, I don’t mind so much when it collapses into yet another slow outro. This time, it feels like coming out of a mental fog into some sort of an epiphany, as the horns which were blaring during the loudest part of the song now provide a meditative, albeit somewhat icy, space for the album’s final lyrics to be pondered: “All I see/Dividing tides/Rising over me.” It almost reminds me of how a Sigur Rós song might end on a funereal note after doing something intense previously. Fleet Foxes lacked the proper buildup to this, but they nailed the ending. Of course, then they have to go and subvert this sad but peaceful conclusion by tacking on the sounds of someone packing up and walking out of the studio afterwards – I’ve heard that “leave the mic on” trick at the end of far too many indie folk-type albums, and I have to say it’s getting super-old at this point.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I Am All I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar $1.25
Cassius, – $1.75
– Naiads, Cassadies $.75
Kept Woman $2
Third of May / Ōdaigahara $1.75
If You Need to, Keep Time on Me $.50
On Another Ocean (January / June) $.50
Fool’s Errand $1.25
I Should See Memphis $0
Robin Pecknold: Lead vocals, guitar
Skyler Skjelset: Guitar, mandolin, backing vocals
Casey Wescott: Keyboards, mandolin, backing vocals
Christian Wargo: Bass, guitar, backing vocals
Morgan Henderson: Upright bass, guitar, woodwinds, violin, percussion, saxophone
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: