Fleet Foxes did not suffer the sophomore slump. In fact, their second LP Helplessness Blues was so well received that they seemed to found a different phenomenon: the sophomore peak, where after a six-year absence expectations for their third record were at fever pitch, and a similar level of rapturous acclaim was inevitably unattainable, especially for an album like this. Frontman Robin Pecknold, who’s singular voice defines the third of the band’s records in a way it hasn’t previously, posted on his (very wry) Instagram account a list of ‘inclinations’ for this cycle of music which largely comprise of defiance against the most celebrated characteristics of Helplessness Blues: “avoid singy-songy theatrical vocals” and “establish expectations, subvert expectations”. As a result, Crack-Up is more obtuse than even the subtler moments on Fleet Foxes’ debut, built instead on refused assertions, and contrasts.
The title of the record is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, in which the author wrote:
“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”.
Apt, considering it is intelligence and maturity which are the defining traits of the band’s new approach, and on the album Pecknold does wrestle lyrically between opposing inclinations. The opening song features the push and pull of the narrators whims in the feverish “but the night won’t last if you just hold fast, so calm down/(I am hardly made of steel)/Tell me, are you so concealed?/(Can’t I just go to sleep?)”. ‘Third Of May’ uses three days across three disparate years to chart the damaged friendship between Pecknold and guitarist Skyler Skjelset; again, documenting change enacted simply by shifting perspectives as the passing of time makes itself felt. Growth is best measured against stasis however, and while ‘Third Of May’ charts a great sprawl, sonically and thematically, it’s languid successor basks in only one moment of intimacy; it’s a simple song, but one of the album’s most beauteous, bearing as it does a simple request which defines a friendship: “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”.
Pecknold’s inclination that the music on the album should “show not tell”, emphasising mimesis over dietetics, is embodied in the structure and rhythm of the music whole. Pecknold told Pitchfork that:
“the title relates to the structure of the album, the editing and arrangement, there are a number of songs where I wanted the transitions to feel jarring, non-linear”.
The album certainly works best when taken in this way, as a 55 minute succession of rises and falls, like the waves which crest on the coast captured by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Hamaya in his work, featured prominently on Crack-Up’s cover. The opening song, where the contrast between acapella mumbling then fast and rich instrumentation is most stark, is just a microcosm of this. While this track is divided into three parts within itself, the third section is just the first of a three-song suite which spans the following two tracks; each a distinct movement but part of a distinct whole. Such crashes and breaks in instrumentation also strongly benefit songs which work less well in isolation: ‘A Fools Errand’ was a disappointing single, whose sudden rushes came with much less ease than those on teasers like ‘Sim Sala Bim’ in years gone by, but as part of the album whole it’s choruses resolve a tension established in the somber portion of ‘Ōdaigahara’, through the quiet beauty of ‘If You Need To, Keep Time On Me’, only finally broken in the magnificent sweep of ‘On Another Ocean (January/June)’. The songs on Crack-Up tease facets out of each other in this way, making songs and their titles mere footnotes to the LPs greater sprawl, with a vision that is as well-defined as it is idiosyncratic.
Fleet Foxes’ reference points are disparate too, but for a band whose frontman once positioned themselves alongside genre greats such as Van Morisson and Roy Harper, Crack-Up affirms the band’s remarkable ability to play a well-tested style of music, but without sounding antiquated or falling into the trap of imitation, which has often captured acts like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers before them. Part of the magic comes from Pecknold’s ability to drag 21st Century concerns into his wheelhouse, with ‘Cassius-’ reliving his experiences of protest following the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge in 2016, while ‘-Naiads, Cassadies’ references the continuing struggle for gender equality. A nod to Muhammad Ali fits seamlessly alongside one to Roman conspirator Gaius Cassius Longinus, both of which help informs an intellectual strain to the album’s lyrical content perhaps informed by Pecknold’s studies at Columbia out of New York’s Greenwich Village in the band’s six-year downtime. He does however say that certain academic pretentious are absent from the record thanks to his working them out in the seminar rooms: “you’re welcome”.
Eclectic references sit alongside eclectic reference points, with The Velvet Underground, Moroccan Gnawa devotional music and Curtis Mayfield cited as influences. However it is only the slightly forgettable ‘Mearcstapa’ (which, Pecknold explained on the excellent Song Exploder podcast, was influenced by the abnormal tunings of Ali Farka Touré, and was meant to feel “like a Beach Boys song with a Can song being played on top of it”) which succumbs to the fear that such an approach would create work which functions better as intellectual exercise than music. Instead, the complexity of the band’s approach doesn’t sully the emotional power of the songs at all (at least once multiple listens have unlocked their subtleties). Skjelset’s guitar work and the contrasting delicacy and power of Casey Wescott on keys make the aforementioned movements within songs impossibly luscious, such as the opening surge of the chugging ‘Third Of May’, or in syncopation to produce the hymnal quality of ‘Kept Woman’. Pecknold’s mighty vocal talent holds every song together though, his disappearance and reappearance at the beginning of ‘Thumbprint Scar’ capturing in sound the feel of a new day dawning.
Subverting expectations is one way to duck and dive away from a post-sophomore slump, as nimbly as the Cassius name-dropped on the record. Crack-Up does indeed lack the strong singular musical statements like ‘Mykynos’ and ‘Montezuma’, and perhaps thats why Pecknold was so keen to make it clear that that wasn’t the point this time around. As the world around the band changes rapidly, replacing Helplessness Blue’s definitive assertions with Crack-Up’s tension/release feels defiant in it’s completeness, as it’s creators assert their right to change and slow down, as well as to speed up.
Words By Liam Inscoe – Jones