It has been six years since Fleet Foxes released their gorgeous album Helplessness Blues, and it has been a long six years. There aren’t many bands I find myself periodically seeking out news and updates online for these days, but Fleet Foxes have had me feverishly Googling late at night like an obsessive teenager, although any news has been light on the ground. Way back in 2013 Fleet Foxes posted a photo to Facebook of a home studio titled ‘step one’ and soon after followed it with a picture of a broken mandolin titled ‘step two’. I interpreted this at the time as work beginning on a new record and then being abandoned. News of main man Robin Pecknold enrolling at Columbia University for an undergraduate degree seemed to confirm this and, as their former drummer Josh Tillman started racking up column inches with his controversial utterances as Father John Misty, it started to feel like Fleet Foxes would be relegated to a footnote in his career.
Whatever your feelings on Father John Misty (and personally I’m a huge fan of his Pure Comedy album), it’s great news that this isn’t the case. Fleet Foxes stand out in a music industry full of electronic beats and sardonic lyricists as purveyors of authentic, heartfelt folk music that is no less progressive for its adherence to traditional instrumentation. The band are finally back, with their strangest, most challenging album yet. Crack-Up is a fascinating set of songs, full of depth and variety. Whilst Pecknold’s talent for gorgeous melody and harmony remains intact he’s also developed an increased appetite for experimentation and dissonance. Cleverly this album is able to sound, at times, like a major shift in sound and texture has occurred without straying far from the traditional instrumentation that is such a big part of the recognisable Fleet Foxes sound. Vocals, acoustic guitar, drums and bass sit amongst a plethora of orchestral instruments: strings, woodwind and brass. The major differences seem to be in the use of sound manipulation and field recordings, spliced in amongst gorgeous studio recordings of mostly acoustic instrumentation. At times this is done to create jarring, uncomfortable juxtapositions – like on the opening song (or suite of songs), ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’, which regularly lurches from the luscious to the aggressive.
At other times this technique of layering in and splicing together different recordings is used more sympathetically: the sound of shifting bodies in a studio room that emerges from the lush outro of ‘Crack-Up’, the snippet of what sounds like an old jazz record sandwiched between ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’ and ‘Fool’s Errand’. This is an album that is jam-packed full of these features, little experimentations that reveal themselves more and more with repeated listens. Lyrically the album has an even greater mountain of literary references and complex metaphors to climb, if one were to attempt to excavate the meaning buried within each song. With only a handful of listens under my belt I don’t feel I’ve fully apprehended all that is on offer. It’s clearly a record that is going to divide critics and fans alike: are we to see this as an overly fussy work of pretension or a brave artist’s intellectual statement?
Already I know I’m not going to sit on the fence – it doesn’t feel like they’ve over-egged the pudding. So much of that melancholic gorgeousness we are used to finding on a Fleet Foxes record are there on offer. Songs like ‘Kept Woman’, ‘If You Need To, Keep Time On Me’ and ‘Fool’s Errand’ seem to belong more to the classic feel the band do so well, and the unusual arrangements and juxtapositions serve to enhance more often than they irritate. I get bored easily if a piece of music always goes where I expect it to. If you’re that sort of listener you may well find this is the finest Fleet Foxes album to date – but it might take a bit of time to arrive at that decision, and that’s no bad thing. In the rush of the modern world, obsessed with the instant gratification of trending topics and populism it’s refreshing to hear an album that’s seeped in older flavours and feelings. Old fashioned instruments expressing themselves in new ways – a marriage between traditional folk, progressive rock (without the electric guitars and distortion), modern classical and musique concrete, I feel this is an album that will stand the test of time, by being bold enough to flow against the current. It’s equally possible future generations will dismiss it as a pretentious mess, but it’s hard to deny it has moments of rare beauty in amongst the mire. So, my verdict? Worth the wait but not for the faint of heart.