It’s been over six years since we last heard from Fleet Foxes, and almost ten years since their eponymous debut album, with a helping hand from Pitchfork, launched them to musical stardom. A lot has changed in that time. Indie rock seems to have reached a point of critical mass where it can no longer pretend to be looking at the music world from the outside in, and the blogs which touted Fleet Foxes as the Next Big Thing have largely moved on to more trendy emerging sub-genres like trap and alternative R&B.
With all this going on, I was very curious to hear a new record from the band, and see how they would evolve their sound to meet the changes around them. Crack-Up, however, represents more of a subtle evolution than a sea change. The instrumental palette has widened a bit to include a small sprinkling of looped samples, psychedelic brass and, at one point, a gong.
But by and large the Fleet Foxes sound is entirely intact: rushing rivers of layered acoustic guitar, steady drums, and the stately beauty of Robin Pecknold’s harmonized vocals. Like Helplessness Blues before it, Crack-Up has some darker moments, but they largely serve as a counterpoint to the album’s default mode, which is one of euphoric summery bliss.
This mood, which the band manages to conjure up a number of songs, is no doubt much less effortless than it appears to be. Crack-Up is a very dense album with impeccable production, its sound built up from a huge number of moving parts into an intricate, winding whole. If we’re going to call the album ‘progressive folk’, then it’s more in the sense of ‘proggy’ than being actually forward thinking or avant-garde.
There are some welcome surprises, though. ‘Cassius’ opens with a looped sample and a gently pulsing sheet of synth and drums before erupting into an acoustic chorus, then ends in a psychedelic swirl of strings and piano. ‘I Should See Memphis’ is a plaintive solo strummer, but ends with a strange, echo-soaked drone that transitions into the album’s buoyant final track.
And ‘Third of May/Odaigahara’, which the band released leading up to the record, begins as its most single-worthy track, with uplifting vocals and a lovely, jazzy double bass which brings Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (a clear influence on the record) to mind. In the second half, however, it becomes an unusual, minimal melting pot of strummed guitars and wobbly synthesizers.
It’s a very nice contrast, and one which feels a bit lacking in some other passages of Crack-Up. ‘If You Need to, Keep Time on Me’ is one of the album’s more stripped down tunes, featuring only piano, a guitar and vocals. But the song finds itself soaked in the same epic, echoey production as the rest of the record, and falls flat as a result. ‘Mearcstapa’ and ‘On Another Ocean’, meanwhile, hue too closely to the Fleet Foxes formula to stand out among the tracklist.
One thing which does consistently stand out on Crack-Up, however, are Robin Pecknold’s gorgeous lyrics. They find a perfect balance between being mystical and obtuse but also quite personal and affecting, as seen in a few of my favourite which I’ve picked out below:
‘Fire can doubt its heat / Water can doubt its power / You’re not adrift / You’re not a gift / You know you’re not a flower’
‘Thin as a shim and Scottish Pale / Bright white light like a bridal veil’.
It’s no coincidence that Fleet Foxes have released their new album right at the peak of summer. This is music meant to be listened to outside, with the grass in your feet and the wind blowing around your ears. It is breezy and optimistic, but also full of detail and precision the closer you care to listen.
All the same, Crack-Up is a bit too familiar in some spots to be truly exciting. The world of indie might have undergone a tectonic shift, but Fleet Foxes, despite the title of their latest album, have not. What they have done instead is produce another gorgeous, lavish, and highly textured folk album which their fans are sure to love, and their detractors (who are, in my opinion, rebelling more against the image of the bearded folky hipster than the music itself) will probably be turned off by. While I feel a slight sense of diminishing returns from the band at this stage of their career, I can’t argue with the sheer prettiness of Crack-Up, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it regularly throughout the summer.