Fleet Foxes ‘Crack Up’ – Review

5 Jul

A few months back, Robin Pecknold wrote an impassioned defence of indie rock in response to an Instagram post by David Longstreth. He made many persuasive arguments but perhaps the most interesting was about the perceived lack of ambition within contemporary indie. ‘I feel like 2009, Bitte Orca / Merriweather / Veckatimest, was the last time there was a fertile strain of “indie rock” that also felt progressive w/o devolving into Yes-ish largesse.’ He went on to say how (unnecessarily) overwhelmed these albums made him feel at the time, convincing him to retreat further towards a more achievable folk sound for album number two ‘Helplessness Blues’. Considering how articulate and developed his points in this discussion were, it seems likely that this subject has been on Pecknold’s mind a lot of late. Fittingly, Fleet Foxes new album ‘Crack Up’ recalls those epic indie rock albums of 2009 in terms of scope, melodic ambition and luxurious detail, and in 2017 it stands out like a beautifully sore thumb.

Admittedly it should be good considering how long it was in gestation. In exactly the length of time Robin Pecknfold has been writing the album and finding himself (writing took place during a three year college course bookended by touring and travelling) The Beatles went from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Abbey Road’. So of course expectations are high. Thankfully though, the time off appears to have intensified rather than diluted Pecknold’s enthusiasm for making music with his fellow foxes. Perhaps spurred on by the cold, ironic detachment of his one time band mate Father John Misty, he’s turned in an album straight from the heart. An album built around thoughtful sentiments and warm harmonies without a hint of sarcasm or scorn in sight.

It was touch and go there for a while, by all accounts. Tension between Pecknold and fellow founding member Skye Skjelset boiled over during the touring of ‘Helplessness Blues’. But it seems like time and space have been great healers – this is the first album they’ve co-produced together. They address their relationship on stunning lead single ‘Third of May’, a song rich in both symbolism and emotive honesty. ‘If I lead you through the fury will you call to me?’ Pecknold asks over a naturally moving sea of instruments. The song is sometimes quiet and sometimes loud, sometimes busy and sometimes delicate. In some sense it feels longer than the eight minutes it runs for, containing as it does a multitude of emotions, moods and musical elements.

When Fleet Foxes get it right, as they do on ‘Third of May’ they sound unstoppable. ‘I Should See Memphis’, ‘Crack Up’, ‘Naiads’, ‘Kept Woman’ – these are by turns some of the most delicate, moving, patient, complex, ingeniously crafted songs released this year. They unfurl slowly and require concentration and persistence but as with most things that do, it pays off handsomely. Often I find a particular melody lingering in my mind for hours.

Just occasionally though, the band’s complex arrangements feel like overkill. Last week, Pecknold spent thirty painful minutes on the Song Exploder podcast breaking down every component of ‘Mearcstapa’ – from the samples, to the densely layered arrangements, to the complex harmonies and the cryptic lyrics. Ultimately though this is is an example of where all the moving parts – as impressive as they are in theory – don’t add up to much. The song is simply boring. As blunt as this may sound, considering the care and craft that went in to it, that’s the truth. No matter how impressive the various musical and lyrical elements are, the song simply doesn’t emote or connect as it should. It’s like looking at a watch; it may have impressive moving parts when viewed close up, but from a distance all that really matters is how accurately it tells the time. Just occasionally you get the impression Pecknold is being too clever for his own good.

This is particularly true of the lyrics. Peckonfold has annotated his songs on Genius.com, elaborating, for example, on the structure of ‘I Should See Memphis’, the homophones in ‘Third of May’ and the historical allusions threaded throughout the album. Four years in college have clearly turned him in to an itchy student, keen to over analyse, over explain and over think. The thing is, Peckonfold is a good lyricist but he’s no poet. The words and images he frets over are too obtuse for the average listener, and he fails to make the complexity engaging in a way that, say, Ezra Koenig did on ‘Modern Vampires in the City.’ Even when analysed on the page, these lyrics often come off as pretentious, ineffective undergrad poetry. See for example, ‘All you leave behind you lies in any one you open’ or ‘pacing the basement like Cassius in Rome or in Kinisha/just let me at him like first Manassas, like Appomattox.’

Still, fleet foxes could sing the phone book and it would sound divine. Without a doubt the secret to their success is their harmonies – It’s one of the things that separates the group from their many imitators. A beautiful flower is beautiful whether it’s growing in a field, a junkyard, or a city. Sometimes it’s more beautiful in ugly surroundings. So it is with Fleet Foxes harmonies. Often on ‘Crack Up’ the music is boring, repetitive, dissonant, messy or tiring (sometimes intriguingly so, sometimes not. Some times purposefully so, sometimes, I suspect, not). But at the heart of each and every song here are harmonies so sweet and intoxicating that every complaint seems somehow irrelevant.

‘Crack Up’ is flawed and can be frustrating; even as I write this I’m not convinced about its lasting appeal – do I admire it or love it? Do the many florid arrangements distract from the emotion? Is all the linguistic wordplay obscuring a lack of anything real to say? I’m not sure I know the answers but I do know I’ve considered the questions for weeks now, all the while chewing on and being mesmerised by this record. It’s complicated and deep and intelligent and these are qualities that not many indie rock albums have in 2017. Even if you find that complexity off putting, this is an album that is hard to just dismiss outright. It’s simply too carefully crafted and too thoughtful – not to mention far too gorgeous – for that. ‘Crack Up’ may occasionally be befuddlement but it’s always beautiful befuddlement.

8.5/10

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