Premature Evaluation: Fleet Foxes Crack-Up
A popular musician, the frontman of a huge rock band, finds himself lost. His success seemed to come out of nowhere, and he worries about losing touch with himself. He wonders why he’s making this music, why he’s even on this planet in the first place. And so he takes some time. He goes away. He becomes a subject of frantic fan speculation. Eventually, we learn that he’s gone off to an Ivy League school, hoping to find some perspective, some new sense of clarity. But it hasn’t worked. He’s learned that he’s as out of place on the quad, among the smart nerd kids and society scions at least a decade younger than him. And so he returns to music, coming out with an album that vents that confusion in every direction. How in the fuck has this happened twice? And how has it resulted in two albums so completely, radically different from one another? Because let me tell you: Crack-Up, the new Fleet Foxes album, is no Pinkerton.
It’s not a fair comparison, of course. Weezer and Fleet Foxes have always been two very different enterprises. Robin Pecknold wants to challenge his fans the same way Rivers Cuomo once did, and he wants to say some similar things about confusion and depression and isolation and loss of self. But he’s not working with the same toolkit. The Rivers Cuomo of the ’90s wrote songs that were big and sticky and noisy singalongs, and he was funny even when he was being dark. Pecknold is none of those things. Instead, Pecknold has always worked in ornate and intricate forms of music, in layered harmonies and amber waves of acoustic-guitar strum. The two of them were facing life circumstances that are so bafflingly similar that I almost want to think Pecknold is somehow existentially biting Cuomo. But where Cuomo made a catchy-as-hell record about falling apart spectacularly, putting all his neuroses on display in ways that would later humiliate him, Pecknold is, if anything, doing the opposite. He’s made a record about retreating within himself that almost sounds like it’s retreating within itself. He’s made a record as pretty and impenetrable as Pinkerton was ugly and direct.
If you’re going to sit there and analyze the lyrics of Crack-Up, you’re going to need to keep a whole lot of browser windows open. You’re going to have to pull up information about Civil War battles and Egyptian gods and Roman orators. You’re going to need to know that “Mearcstapa” is named for Monsters: The Experimental Association For The Research Of Cryptozoology Through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application. You’re going to need to read the F. Scott Fitzgerald essay that Pecknold named the album after. And you’re still going to be lost. Pecknold is still going to be writing in flowery, poetic opacities: “Under your nameless shame, I left you in frame, and you rose to be ossified / As a Rose of the Oceanside,” “Thin as a shim and Scottish pale / Bright white light like a bridal veil / ‘I don’t need you,’ cut to chewn-through fingernails.” In some fundamental sense, Pecknold is writing for himself.
Musically, Pecknold is doing something similar. When Fleet Foxes released the nine-minute album centerpiece “Third Of May / ?daigahara,” they were sending a message, letting us know that this would be an album of multi-part suites and proggy digressions and quiet ruptures. On that score, they have been true to their word. Crack-Up is an album full of pretty, soothing music that nonetheless delights in taking odd turns, in branching off in unexpected directions. On opening track “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” Pecknold starts off singing a self-pitying folk dirge before interrupting himself, mid-phrase, with a sudden, surging wall of guitars. Throughout the album, songs stop on a dime, strings flutter in different directions, and all those guitars sometimes give off the impression that you’re hearing two different bands playing two different songs at the same time. Songs rarely have verses or choruses or the sorts of mathematical structures that we can easily recognize. Instead, they’re all complex architecture, full of little details that only reveal themselves upon multiple listens. That opening track features a sample of a high-school band covering Fleet Foxes’ own oldie “White Winter Hymnal,” a meta touch that might also serve as a rebuke to Pecknold’s older, simpler music.
Is Pecknold embarrassed of that older music? He shouldn’t be. The music on Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut sounded plenty sophisticated in 2008, but it’s practically the Ramones compared to what the band is doing here. Many of the best Fleet Foxes songs (which are also, no coincidence, the most popular Fleet Foxes songs) could be campfire singalongs. And while they moved their sound to something fuller and more orchestral on their second album, they still sounded like they were speaking to us, not above us. Consider “Helplessness Blues,” which might be the band’s masterpiece. There’s a lot going on in that song. It’s lush and carefully constructed, with two separate parts. But it’s all built around a couple of driving, elemental melodies. It has a big-singalong hook, the type of thing where you and your friends might find yourselves singing it into each other’s faces when you’re at a festival together. And it has a lyric that makes perfect sense if you’ve ever graduated from college and almost immediately learned that your diploma isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. It’s Pecknold writing for a whole lot more people than just himself.
That’s gone. On Crack-Up, Pecknold and his band have folded inward, getting lost in their own ideas. Their arrangements still follow a certain logic, and they still build up to some devastatingly lovely moments. But as often as not, it sounds like they’re chasing intricacy for intricacy’s sake. Where Pecknold once wrote in plain, accessible language, he now writes in riddles. There are moments of pure, uncomplicated beauty on Crack-Up (most of “Kept Woman”), and there are lyrics where he just comes out and says what he means (“To be held within oneself is deathlike”). But those moments are the exception, not the rule. And so Crack-Up is a sleepy and indulgent and overthought album. It’s only five minutes longer than Helplessness Blues, but it feels like it’s twice that album’s length. Plenty of times, there’s so much going on during individual songs, so many melodies flying in different directions, that it’s hard to hear any of them. It turns into one aimless ambient strum-folk hum. And despite Pecknold’s inimitable voice — as high and crystalline and passionate as ever — Crack-Up ultimately sounds more like Veckatimest than like Fleet Foxes.
That’s not a terrible thing. Lots of people love Veckatimest, and lots of people will probably love Crack-Up. It’s certainly a pretty album — almost relentlessly so, really. Pecknold and fellow Fleet Fox Skyler Skjelset produced the album, and they put so much care into every individual moment of the album that the sheer sound of the thing can be moving. It’s rare to hear any music this full and rich and cinematic. And this music will almost certainly gain heft and grandeur when Fleet Foxes play it live; onstage, the band always has a forcefulness that their records only imply. But the songs just aren’t there this time — or, if they are, they’re buried under so many layers of sound that you can barely hear them. When Crack-Up is playing, I want to take a nap.
Crack-Up is a personal album, one that addresses the inner workings of Pecknold’s skull rather than the things happening outside it. But how great would it be to get an album with the sweep and perspective and, I don’t know, wisdom of Helplessness Blues right now, when most of us could use some serious reassurance? That’s not Pecknold’s responsibility, but it bums me out to hear Pecknold and his band coming back, after six years, in total sleep-mode. Consider: Fleet Foxes’ old drummer, the guy who played on the last album, has spent the past few years twisting the internet into balloon animals. Josh Tillman has reinvented himself, built a whole new sound, refashioned a persona, and put together a whole dazzling three-album arc in the time that Pecknold’s been messing around with woodworking and term papers. I’m sure Pecknold and Tillman don’t see themselves as being in competition with one another, just as Pecknold isn’t trying to write his own Pinkerton, but the comparison is unavoidable.
It’s not like Father John Misty isn’t making indulgent music. Hell, “indulgent” might be the first adjective you’d use to describe Pure Comedy, the album he released just two months ago. But it’s music that, whatever you think of Tillman, engages with the outside world, doing it in sharp and merciless and funny and dickish ways. It’s an attack, not a retreat. And it’s also, on a sheer aesthetic level, just as gorgeous as what Pecknold is doing. Maybe Pecknold needed to travel deep within his own head to get back out again, and maybe that’s what we’re hearing now. But where Fleet Foxes used to make anthems, they’ve now given us an album full of puzzles. They’re very pretty puzzles, put together carefully and artfully. But they’re still just fucking puzzles.