What you can’t leave behind
Fleet Foxes have returned from exile. Is their new album worth the wait? James McNair finds out
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.
Fleet Foxes, from left: Morgan Henderson, Casey Wescott, frontman Robin Pecknold, Skyler Skjelset and Christian Wargo.
Fleet Foxes Crack-up (Nonesuch) Dh36