Crack-Up, released in 2017, is the long awaited third studio album from indie folk band Fleet Foxes. After their sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, was released in 2011 they went into an indefinite hiatus. Their drummer Josh Tillman left the band to pursue his very successful solo career as Father John Misty and lead singer and songwriter, Robin Pecknold, went to study at Columbia University. For years no one really knew what to expect from the band or Robin. Their first two records were highly regarded and a follow-up seemed to be the only possibility. Finally, Robin started becoming active on Instagram in 2016 and teased material and photos from the sessions that became Crack-Up. The album was originally entitled Ylajali as per an Instagram teaser from Robin. That morphed into the more pronounceable Crack-Up, named after a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald essays. I dare say the wait was worth it. Six years isn’t terribly longer than the gap between the last two Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire albums for example. Fleet Foxes have returned with a timeless piece or work, something only time away could’ve inspired.
Crack-Up is an entirely different beast than their first two albums, which were both full of accessible melodies and relatable, or mood-setting, lyrics. It’s the sound of a band matured beyond the one you heard playing “White Winter Hymnal”, which is, curiously enough, sampled on the opening track. Despite this, Fleet Foxes are still immediately identifiable as a folk band and their breathtaking harmonies are still in full force. They’ve previously proved they can successfully drift into ambient, progressive folk territory on “The Shrine / An Argument”, and Crack-Up expands on that experiment.
Crack-Up has been receiving a lot of obvious, but unwarranted, comparisons to Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. Beyond some nice things said on Twitter by Misty, and the fact that they’re the two biggest folk albums released so far this year, there’s no reason to compare them. They’re ambitious for different reasons and to compare the two would be futile.
“I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” opens the album with barely there vocals and sparse strumming. It leaves the listener wondering when Robin will flex his immediately identifiable voice and expand the background instrumental into the lush compositions of their past. Before too long (it’s like a less antagonizing “Dance Yrself Clean” wait) guitars break out and the song continues to crescendo into a string-infused introduction to the album. However, Robin also stops the song at a moments notice, asks a question, then jumps right back into the rising tide of guitars and strings. It’s an interesting experiment and one that is pulled off flawlessly. The song is unlike any other opening song Fleet Foxes have done either. “Sun It Rises” and “Montezuma” slowly acclimate the listener to the atmosphere of the album, while “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” wastes no time reaching its climax. That seamlessly flows right into “Cassius, -“, which in turn flows into “-Naiads, Cassadies” with a simple bassline. Side A is the most consistently great piece of the album with its flawless transitions, beautiful harmonies, swelling strings, various field recordings, and makes you believe that this was indeed worth the wait.
Side B opens with “Kept Woman”, which is one of the songs that could fit in nicely with their older material. It doesn’t have any huge cinematic moments but works perfectly as a segue into the stunning “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”. At nearly nine minutes it’s the longest track on the album and serves as a centerpiece holding everything together. The intensity of the opening song, the mid-song stops, the whispered vocals, and a trailing instrumental all present themselves. About halfway through, the song pauses and opens up into the most poignant piece of music Crack-Up has to offer. It’s the equivalent of reaching the top of mountain after climbing all day and seeing the beautiful, expansive view it has to offer.
One part of the album that’s nearly impossible to write about from an outside perspective is the lyrics. “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” is a bare bones track that showcases Robin’s vocals, lyrics, and guitar playing, including the scratching his fingers sliding up and down the neck. Everything is sung with such a passion that I wish it could be more relatable at times. Robin has explained bits of lyrics in interviews, social media, and other forums, but they aren’t as widely applicable as they were on Helplessness Blues.
“Mearcstapa” serves as transition towards “On Another Ocean (January / June)”. That being said, even the songs that don’t seem to lead anywhere are still ambitious and integral to the flow of the album. Every song could justifiable be somebody’s favorite. If “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is the centerpiece then “Fool’s Errand” is the climax. In an album lacking traditional song structure, the chorus of “Fool’s Errand” stands out as a shining moment. It’s likely to be end up being the most popular individual song from Crack-Up. The passionate chorus fades leading to another trailing instrumental, similar to the end of “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”. The tracklist to Crack-Up is just another perfectly executed piece of the album and flows like a soundtrack.
“I Should See Memphis” is unassuming and seems rather plain at first listen, especially compared to the rest of Crack-Up, but after spending a few weeks with the album it’s opened itself up and has stuck with me the most. It’s a poignant but optimistic sounding way to wind down the album. A gently strummed guitar, gentle vocals from Robin, and swirling violins create the most subtlety beautiful moment on Crack-Up. Following the climax of “Fool’s Errand”, “I Should See Memphis” is the narrator coming to terms with what they’ve learned. Crack-Up ends with the solitary, bold, repeated notes of the title track and the sound of Robin running out of the studio. It’s a fitting conclusion, but one that comes across more as white noise than something that will make you want to flip the record and play it again.
Crack-Up is a stunning return from Fleet Foxes, who are hopefully back in the game for good. Robin Pecknold has proved his worth as a songwriter over and over, and Crack-Up has a sense of timelessness about it that will keep it from growing stale for years to come. It takes time for the record to open up its nuances, but once it does it’s beyond compare.
Pressing Details: This is the standard black pressing released by Nonesuch Records. They’re off Sub Pop, who are one of the best labels out there, but there were definitely no corners cut when it came to packaging. The album is packaged in a thick gatefold sleeve with a fold out insert. The insert contains all the information you could possibly want to know about the album; lyrics, exactly who played what on which song, additional artwork, and more. Crack-Up is spread across two records and sounds perfect to my ears. This one is a must-own on vinyl. It’s well worth the price and is the type of music that just makes sense to hear on that format.
Crack-Up is available on vinyl from Amazon here.