Fleet Foxes (photo by Shawn Brackbill, PR)
Fleet Foxes came together in the Seattle area around eleven years ago. Relying on rich harmonies, expansive arrangements, hauntingly beautiful melodies and cerebral lyrics, Fleet Foxes have designed a unique place for themselves as a progressively-minded, indie folk outfit.
After some time of silence, the band has returned with an ambitious and complex new album called Crack-Up. Earlier this decade, it seemed that Fleet Foxes might fade out. Following their acclaimed second album, 2011’s Helplessness Blues. and the supporting tour that followed its release, their future appeared to be in question. First, drummer and backing vocalist, Josh Tillman, who joined the group in 2008 following their self-titled first album, left the band in early 2012 in order to return to his solo career; this time under the moniker Father John Misty. (Fear Fun, the first album from Tillman as Father John Misty, was released just a few months after his parting from Fleet Foxes.)
Then, once their touring was completed in 2013, Fleet Foxes quietly retreated from the public’s view. Frontman Robin Pecknold turned away from music for a spell to move to New York City so he could attend the Columbia University School of General Studies. Thankfully, this period of inactivity didn’t forecast the end of Fleet Foxes. After a few years, the band began work on a third album, titled Crack-Up.
Crack-Up is an ornate album of eleven songs. Several of them are extended suites, or medleys, that showcase a band at the peak of their creative abilities. The sea is often the setting for these musical excursions, which are captained by multi-instrumentalists Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset, and Casey Wescott — the band’s three most constant members — along with Christian Wargo and newest member Morgan Henderson.
The complexities that are prevalent throughout Crack-Up are in full flower in the opening selection, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” a theatrical suite that opens with an atonal singer softly mumbling his song before “the band kicks ‘the loner’ off the stage” (as described within the lyrics). It’s here that the whole of Fleet Foxes emerge, but not without a call-and-response exchange between band and "loner." It’s a stream-of-consciousness composition that is meant to create a theater-in-the-mind setting.
That vivid imagery continues on “Cassius, -," a song which takes place at sea and in a storm, alternately under water and above the surface. From here, the scene segues into the lovely “- Naiads, Cassadies,” where the storm has ended and we find ourselves on the coast, in a car.
Midway through the album, Pecknold addresses the political apprehensions he felt on January 20 of this year, Inauguration Day, in “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me.” Peace settles on “Mearcstapa,” which places us at sail on the open ocean. The song’s jazzy calm is exquisitely orchestrated, creating a clear image of being at sea.
Gorgeous melodies abound on Crack-Up, especially on “Kept Woman,” “Fool’s Errand” and the nearly nine minutes of “Third Of May/Odaigahara,” which documents the longtime friendship between Pecknold and Skjelset, framed The third of May is the date that Fleet Foxes’ last album, Helplessness Blues, was released. It is also Skjelset’s birthday. And Odaigahara is a mountain in Japan.
Crack-Up is also linked to Fleet Foxes' previous album, Helplessness Blues — the final seconds of “Grown Ocean,” the final song on that album, connects perfectly with the first note of Crack-Up's first track, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar."
All of the songs on Crack-Up were written by Pecknold. The album was mostly recorded over the second half of 2016 and completed in the first weeks of this year. The sessions were spread out over six recording locations — New York City, the Dutchess County town of Amenia, Seattle and Anacortes, Washington. Production was handled by band leaders Pecknold and Skjelset, while former producer, Phil Ek, mixed the album.
With Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes’ focus is sharper than ever. The band's instrumental prowess and Pecknold’s immense talents as a composer and lyricist add up to an undeniably ambitious and satisfyingly complex album, leaving plenty of space for interpretation and discovery. On Crack-Up, every nuance, stylistic change, and thematic shift is expertly executed, creating a majestic tapestry of sound and vision.