Fleet Foxes go deeper but lose lustre on Crack-Up
”The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. That line comes from a collection of essays titled “The CrackUp,” from which Fleet Foxes took the title of its latest album.
Fleet Foxes founder Robin Pecknold finds opposed ideas everywhere he looks these days, and his songs brim with dense, deep anxieties. On “Cassius,” in which synthesizers throb like a headache before an orchestra sweeps in, he flinches at all he surveys: “Past my window, out in the street/ Life makes short work of all I see.”
A few musical threads connect to the band’s beloved self-titled debut in 2008, but the quintet is not living in the past. Back then, Fleet Foxes helped define a musical movement of 21st century bands who conjured 19th century ideals and the pastoral folk-rock of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Along with Midlake, Blitzen Trapper, Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, the Seattle band evoked a lost time with their soaring harmonies and bucolic melodies.
Three years later, the band aimed for a more complex sound on “Helplessness Blues.” Though more popular than ever — sold-out theatre shows and hundreds of thousands of album sales — the band took a six-year break, in part so that Pecknold could attend college in New York City. Along the way, he patiently assembled “Crack-Up” (Nonesuch), an album about discontent, lessons learned and relationships lost and renewed.
With its political undertones — “When the world insists/ That the false is so” — this a protest album packaged inside a sumptuously orchestrated series of songs. The music suggests progressive rock as much as folk. In this respect, Pecknold joins fellow lapsed folkies such as Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (on “22, a Million”) and Joanna Newsom (every album since “Ys”) in expanding genre boundaries.
The early folk shadings appear sporadically, with moments in which the layered instrumentation fades and makes Pecknold’s vulnerability more explicit. The deceptively gentle paranoia of “On Another Ocean (January/June)” and the hymnlike healing coveted on “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” work particularly well because of this starker presentation.
Most of the songs are not nearly as immediate, with elaborate and often pretty arrangements that hold the listener at arm’s length with too similar tempos and sparing hooks. Pecknold clearly has a lot on his mind, but he pays a price for stuffing all his ideas into suites such as the nearly nine-minute “Third of May/Odaigahara” and the threepart “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar.” The fussiness smudges the emotional transparency that made the Fleet Foxes’ music so breathtaking. It remains an impressive band, but also a more remote one.
Fleet Foxes play Toronto’s Massey Hall Friday, Aug. 4.
Fleet Foxes back in 2012.
"Crack Up" is the latest release by Fleet Foxes.