“I had a strong sudden instinct that I must be alone,” F. Scott Fitzgerald confides in The Crack-Up, his essay originally published by Esquire magazine in 1936. “I didn't want to see any people at all. I had seen so many people all my life—I was an average mixer, but more than average in a tendency to identify myself, my ideas, my destiny, with those of all classes that I came in contact with. I was always saving or being saved—in a single morning I would go through the emotions ascribable to Wellington at Waterloo. I lived in a world of inscrutable hostiles and inalienable friends and supporters. But now I wanted to be absolutely alone and so arranged a certain insulation from ordinary cares.”
In some respects, Fitzgerald’s existential angst and inclination to detach himself from the world of celebrity that had engulfed him since his literary star hit the ascendant in the 1920s may parallel Robin Pecknold’s experiences in the five years following the 2011 release of his band’s sophomore album Helplessness Blues. Upon concluding the LP’s ambitious, 113-date accompanying tour (the Berkeley, California performance of which I was fortunate enough to witness) in January 2012, the Fleet Foxes frontman decided to retreat for an extended hiatus. At the same time, drummer Josh Tillman left the band to divert energy toward developing his solo recording career, under his adopted stage moniker Father John Misty.
During his time away from the band, Pecknold stayed busy by moving to New York City, enrolling as an undergraduate at Columbia University, performing as part of the Gene Clark Other Band on their mini-tour, and orchestrating the score for his cousin Brian Watkins’ Off-Broadway play Wyoming. Meanwhile, Fleet Foxes’ loyal supporters pined for any indication of new music from the band, the first signs of which gradually emerged throughout the course of last year. But the verdict remained out regarding how the extended time off would impact their songwriting and sound.
Thankfully—though not surprisingly considering the band’s proven track record of perfectionism and propensity for experimentation in the studio—Crack-Up finds Fleet Foxes’ ambitious streak fully intact and their songs as immersive and intricately conceived as ever. Loosely inspired by Fitzgerald’s essay, but also seemingly a soliloquy on the fractured and volatile state of things in the U.S. of A and beyond, Crack-Up’s eleven songs find Pecknold tussling with internal conflicts of identity set against elaborate, sweeping arrangements that defy conventional structures.
Nowhere is that more profoundly heard than on the three-part album opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” a fluid, multi-layered cacophony of different sounds and tempos that twist, turn, start and sputter, while Pecknold’s murmuring juxtaposed with his signature yearning vocals add to the song’s overarching sense of disorientation. Unorthodox samples appear in the concluding moments, including the sound of lapping waves and a Brooklyn high school’s rendition of “White Winter Hymnal” from their debut self-titled album.
Clocking in at close to nine minutes, the epic, shape-shifting “Third Of May / Ōdaigahara” is arguably the album’s centerpiece and one of the band’s most inspired compositions in their oeuvre to date. Largely Pecknold’s homage to his friendship and musical camaraderie with guitarist Skyler Skjelset (born on May 3rd), the song also references the Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s famous 1814 work The Third of May 1808, which depicts Spanish resistance to the Napoleon-led French army’s occupation during the Peninsular War.
Other standouts include the gorgeous crescendo of the contemplative “On Another Ocean (January / June),” Pecknold’s ode to life lived under the microscope, vulnerable to the judgment of others, and the ever-present impulse to escape to a safe haven, to another ocean. The insistent, propulsive swell of “Fool’s Errand” is perhaps the closet analog to what we’ve heard on the band’s previous two LPs, with Pecknold examining feelings of disenchantment, but with a twinge of optimism and resilience lingering just beneath the surface: “Blind love couldn't win / As the facts all came in / But I know I'll again chase after wind / What have I got if not a thought?”
A handful of songs expand upon Pecknold’s personal introspection to offer veiled commentary, cloaked in palpable disillusionment, about the more troubling side of the current events spectrum here in the states. “Cassius, —” is Pecknold’s affecting recollection of his experience participating in the protests that followed the death of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, at the hands of two white, Baton Rouge, Louisiana police officers on July 5, 2016. Uniting with others to denounce the institutional forces at play that conspired to steal another life among the tragically long list of black citizens unjustifiably killed by those employed to protect and serve, Pecknold sings, “The song of masses, passing outside / All inciting the fifth of July / When guns for hire open fire, blind against the dawn / When the knights in iron took the pawn / You and I, out into the night / Held within the line that they've drawn.”
“If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” is a sparse lament for the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Informed by many left-leaning Americans’ false—and in retrospect, foolish—assumptions that Hillary Clinton was assured to become number 45, Pecknold inquires, “How could it all fall in one day? Were we too sure of the sun?” Crack-Up concludes with the title track, a plaintive meditation on our fragmented world, with political guns a-blazing to keep us divided. “When the world insists / That the false is so,” Pecknold ruminates, as visions of “alternative facts” and Team Trump’s penchant for unabashed duplicity swirl in our minds.
Fans who were naively hoping for a retread of Fleet Foxes or Helplessness Blues may be disappointed by the nuanced direction of Crack-Up. But to truly appreciate their music, one must surely understand that Fleet Foxes have never been a band that rests upon their creative laurels, content to simply repackage their past. Continually reinventing their sound is intrinsic to their creative disposition, and while some of Crack-Up’s more complex, cascading arrangements and arcane lyrics may verge on the esoteric at times, we, the listeners, are ultimately better off because of it. This is a dynamic album that cannot be played once and understood (or reviewed, in my case). It begs for repeated, sustained and attentive listening, as the discerning ear is sure to hear something different with each spin. And even then, some things will not be completely reconciled.
But being able to decode Crack-Up’s eleven songs and analyze the depths of Pecknold’s restless psyche isn’t really the point, is it? Instead, what we have here is a brave, bold document by a band devoted to stretching their artistic vision into new realms, making music that is not engineered to placate their fans and impress critics, but rather to validate their own passion for the art of songcraft. It’s Fleet Foxes’ most imaginative statement yet, replete with the hallmark signs of the band's blood, sweat and tears being infused throughout the recording process, which must have proven exhausting yet gratifying at the same time.
Though the merits of Crack-Up will most certainly prove divisive among Fleet Foxes’ devoted followers and music pundits alike, at least to these ears, angst, alienation and ambivalence have never sounded as sublime and soul-affirming as they do on their triumphant third.
Notable Tracks: “Fool’s Errand” | “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” | “On Another Ocean (January / June)” | “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”