“This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good.”--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
Six years ago, Robin Pecknold, the main creative force behind Fleet Foxes, released his last album, Helplessness Blues. That album was recorded in fits and starts over the three years between that and the band’s self-titled debut, as Pecknold scrapped demos and tried to figure out what he was getting out of being a famous musician. After the touring cycle for Helplessness Blues ended, he did the unthinkable: He enrolled at Columbia, going back to college after dropping out years prior, with the idea of trying to find out what he actually cared about. Did he want to spend his life making music or did he want something else? After years of searching, it turned out he did; he’s back with Crack-Up, the band’s best album since their debut, and has plans to release another Fleet Foxes album and a solo debut.
In a myriad of ways, Fleet Foxes going away for six years, right as their fame seemed ready to tip over into the touring arenas kind, was probably the best thing that Pecknold could have done. The band has only risen in popularity--Pecknold has talked of people telling him on his solo tour with Joanna Newsom that they never got into Fleet Foxes till after they stopped touring--and they were able to step outside of the hype cycle and return to a music world that is even weirder and primed for a new album from them than they would have been in 2013.
And while the world has changed so much that their old drummer released the best album of 2017 so far, the actual music of Crack-Up doesn’t bear much tell that it comes six years after the last Fleet Foxes album. Pecknold’s voice soars, the music swells like B-roll footage from Planet Earth. Hippie folk comingles with AM harmonies and coalesces around Zombies worship and ends up as the least “cool” cool music in the marketplace. Which is to say Crack-Up is great in the same way all of the Fleet Foxes albums are great. The only subtle difference is that the songs are much more likely to sprawl here; many of the songs are multiple part suites that changes styles, vocal delivery, and even perspectives.
Lyrically is where Pecknold makes the big change. The narratives on Crack-Up concern personal growth, watching friendships change and dissolve, facing an unsure world with unsure knowledge, relationships romantic and non left untended, and the endless peril of being a touring rock band having to deal with success. The metaphors are a lot to unpack, and that’s where Crack-Up gets its rewarding replayability.
You get the sense that success and touring were harder on Fleet Foxes than anyone knew here. The climbing “I Should See Memphis” compares touring to going off to the Civil War and like a punishment, while the spare “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” covers what you presume is the buoying relationship at the center of Fleet Foxes between Pecknold and collaborator Skyler Skjelset. “How did it fall in one day,” Pecknold sings about their relationship, before offering his tempo as a beacon call to Skjelset. Album centerpiece and highlight “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” describes being on a “firing line” of fame, and how the two of them had drifted apart in the years since Helplessness Blues. In this way, Crack-Up feels like an explainer from Pecknold to Skjelset, and to Fleet Foxes fans, for what’s been going on in Pecknold’s mind since the last album, and an apology for the distance and the wait.
It’s remarkable, listening to Crack-Up, that nearly 10 years since their debut, Fleet Foxes stand virtually uncopied, sonically unparalleled. Sure, there’s been a tsunami of bands of a varying level of mediocre that have headed out to the woods for promotional photos after they copied part of the band’s songbook, and sure, Mumford and Sons rode the vacuum left by Fleet Foxes to playing arenas and inspiring high schoolers to pick up banjos. But still: nothing has come close to matching this band’s output in terms of the way it stretches forms you’d think were dead and buried and makes them feel timeless and original. They gave bands six years to play catch up, and no one could do it. So they had to come back to show everyone what’s what.