What you can’t leave be­hind

Fleet Foxes have re­turned from ex­ile. Is their new al­bum worth the wait? James McNair finds out

The National - News - The Review - - Mu­sic - James McNair writes for Mojo mag­a­zine and The In­de­pen­dent.

In June 2008, just as Seat­tle band Fleet Foxes came to promi­nence, I asked their linch­pin Robin Pec­knold, then 22, about his group’s name. “I just liked the sound of the words,” he replied. “They seemed evoca­tive of some weird English ac­tiv­ity like fox hunt­ing.” I thought about this again in 2012, by which time it was Pec­knold him­self who had slipped the hounds and gone un­der­ground. Col­umn inches were still be­ing writ­ten about him; an ex­cep­tional tal­ent al­ready missed. Where had Fleet Foxes gone? And what, if any­thing, were they were up to?

Pec­knold al­ready had two won­der­ful al­bums be­hind him: Fleet Foxes’ epony­mous 2008 de­but and it’s 2011 fol­low-up, Help­less­ness Blues. Be­hind him, too, was the ac­ri­mo­nious de­par­ture of Fleet Foxes drum­mer Josh Till­man, who later re-in­vented him­self as lauded solo act Fa­ther John Misty, and told of how oner­ous the pro­tracted ses­sions for Help­less­ness Blues had been. Then in 2016, Pec­knold came back on-radar, al­beit qui­etly. There were YouTube videos of him play­fully arm-wrestling harpist and fel­low great Amer­i­can song­writer, Joanna New­som, whom he briefly sup­ported on tour in the US per­form­ing solo. Sea­soned Fleet Foxes watch­ers sensed that Pec­knold might be un­der­go­ing some kind of tran­si­tion or re-boot – as in­deed he was. Named af­ter The Crack Up,a 1945 es­say col­lec­tion by F Scott Fitzger­ald that ad­dresses the pres­sures of fame, among other top­ics, Fleet Foxes’ long-awaited third al­bum (for once the de­scrip­tion is ac­cu­rate) is the work of a lit­er­a­ture grad­u­ate.

It turned out Pec­knold had en­rolled at Columbia Univer­sity in New York, where he stud­ied Walt Whit­man and James Joyce and put his mu­sic “back in the recre­ational spot”.

In cre­at­ing a mean­ing­ful life for him­self away from the pres­sures of the record­ing in­dus­try, Pec­knold was able to rekin­dle his love for mu­sic and pave his route to­ward Fleet Foxes third al­bum with learn­ing and per­sonal growth, rather than ex­cess, burn-out, or some ill-con­sid­ered mu­si­cal rein­ven­tion.

This was a typ­i­cally as­tute move from a man who learned about the per­ils of the mu­sic busi­ness early. Both Pec­knold’s el­der sis­ter Aja, a for­mer rock critic for Seat­tle Weekly, and his fa­ther Greg, who played with Seat­tle-based soul band The Fath­oms, were able to im­part wis­dom to him. Back in 2008, when I asked about the rave re­views of his band’s de­but al­bum, it was re­fresh­ing to hear Pec­knold say “dis­be­lief is the only sane re­ac­tion”.

Stretch­ing close to an hour in length, Crack-up was recorded at var­i­ous lo­ca­tions across the United States be­tween July 2016 and Jan­uary 2017. As its ti­tle sug­gests, it is the work of a man in some de­gree of torment about the direc­tion his life should take. Both mu­si­cally and lyri­cally, it is the least ac­ces­si­ble Fleet Foxes al­bum to date, but cer­tain key traits re­main. Among them are Pec­knold’s won­der­ful way with lay­ered vo­cal har­monies, his love of ex­otic-sound­ing song ti­tles, and the boun­ti­ful wash of re­verb that lends an air of pot-hol­ing odyssey to tracks such as If You Need To, Keep Time On Me and Cas­sius.

Dis­cussing Crack-up with US mu­sic web­site Pitch­fork back in March, Pec­knold re­marked: “There are a num­ber of songs where I wanted the tran­si­tions to feel jar­ring, non-lin­ear, like you were watch­ing a movie that has been edited par­tially out of se­quence.”

That’s cer­tainly true of the al­bum’s epic three-part opener, I Am All That I Need / Ar­roya Seco / Thumbprint Scar.

With its found sounds, its sym­phonic sound­ing sec­tions and its im­pres­sion­is­tic lyrics, the said track shouts am­bi­tion from the moun­tain­tops and yields its own strange magic given time. “Are you alone? / I don’t be­lieve you,” sings Pec­knold. “Are you at home / I’ll come right now /I need to see you / Thin as a shim and Scot­tish pale / Bright white, light like a bri­dal veil.”

Fur­ther in, Na­iads, Cas­sadies has an ex­quis­ite sim­plic­ity, Pec­knold’s multi-tracked har­monies mak­ing him sound like a com­pos­ite of The Everly Broth­ers, Don and Phil, while Kept Woman, driven by metro­nomic, mi­nor-key pi­ano and acous­tic guitar arpeg­gios, evokes the darker, more spec­tral side of Si­mon & Gar­funkel.

These tracks, too, are lyri­cal puz­zles but Pec­knold’s stud­ies of Whit­man et al have clearly en­gen­dered a new level of po­et­i­cism in him: “God above saw, ever in my mind / Blue and white irises in a line / Un­der your name­less shame / I left you in frame, and you rose to be os­si­fied / As a rose of the ocean­side,” runs part of Kept Woman.

Else­where, Fool’s Er­rand ex­em­pli­fies Fleet Foxes’ distinc­tive wall of echo­ing, soft-fo­cus sound, while the dream-like ti­tle track, with its laid-back brass, falls away at one point, the bet­ter to ex­pose a key cou­plet: “I can tell you’ve cracked / Like a china plate.”

The song which best demon­strates the lay­ers of per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance Pec­knold has so art­fully wo­ven in to Crack-up, though, is the al­bum’s nine-minute sin­gle Third of May / daiga­hara. Its ti­tle ref­er­ences both the birth-date of Pec­knold’s child­hood friend and Fleet Foxes band­mate Skyler Sk­jelset, and the 2011 re­lease date of Help­less­ness Blues. But more than that it is a touch­ing re-af­fir­ma­tion of Pec­knold and Sk­jelset’s friend­ship: “It ad­dresses our dis­tance in the years af­ter tour­ing that al­bum,” Pec­knold told Pitch­fork, “the feel­ing of hav­ing an un­re­solved, un­re­quited re­la­tion­ship that is lin­ger­ing psy­cho­log­i­cally.” Like Joanna New­som’s last al­bum Divers, Crack-up isn’t a record you can “get” in one – or even three or four – lis­tens. Ad­mirably, Pec­knold and his Fleet Foxes band­mates are aim­ing at pop as high-art here. And it’s for the lis­tener to de­cide just how of­ten they hit the tar­get, and at what price, if any.

As Pec­knold con­tin­ues his per­sonal jour­ney to­wards a keenly sought en­light­en­ment, Crack-up makes for a bold and of­ten strik­ingly beau­ti­ful third in­stal­ment of the Fleet Foxes story. We need writ­ers like Pec­knold; song­writ­ers who show that, con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, the canon of great ma­te­rial can still be aug­mented ev­ery now and then.

Cour­tesy Shawn Brack­bill

Fleet Foxes, from left: Mor­gan Hen­der­son, Casey Wescott, front­man Robin Pec­knold, Skyler Sk­jelset and Chris­tian Wargo.

Fleet Foxes Crack-up (None­such) Dh36

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