The bands third album is alternately intriguing and irritating, garlanded with wonderful orchestrations, gorgeous melodies and their trademark pretensions
Over on genius.com a website where music fans annotate lyrics Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold has recently been hard at work explaining his own song Third of May/daigahara. A track from the bands latest album, it now features 27 annotations in Pecknolds hand, covering everything from its allusions to the paintings of Goya to its use of homophones. There are even three paragraphs devoted to the songs structure: The first section of Third of May progresses linearly in time, describing events that did unfold but from some time in the future, until the final breakdown, when I sing the Was I too slow / Did I change overnight down an octave. Thats a voice that is meant to be from even later in time than the voice that has been singing the first section of the song, that the character isnt introspective to that extent until later on.
There is a compelling argument that Pecknold might have used the time he spent explaining his lyrics to instead write something more straightforward. But you can see why he felt he needed to offer some clarification of whats going on on Crack-Up. The album was recorded after a four-year hiatus, during which Pecknold studied at Columbia University and Fleet Foxes former drummer Josh Tillman unexpectedly became one of alt-rocks most intriguing stars. Understandably, some critics have been keen to contrast Crack-Up with Pure Comedy, Tillmans latest album as Father John Misty, but it seems to bear more comparison to Bon Ivers 22, A Million, another wilfully abstruse record made by an American alt-rocker who is disproportionately unsettled by a modicum of fame. On Crack-Ups predecessor, Helplessness Blues, Pecknold spent a lot of time fantasising about jacking it all in to live on a deserted island, or to run an orchard. Now, he seems to have decided he can continue but only if the music he makes takes a determined left turn.
The lyrics on both albums are elliptical and dense Crack-Up is clotted with literary and historical references, to F Scott Fitzgerald, Knut Hamsun, the US civil war, ancient Egypt, the philippics of Cicero, Katie Prices Perfect Ponies: Ponies to the Rescue, Book 6, etc. But while 22, A Million saw Justin Vernon warping his music and voice with electronic effects borrowed from cutting-edge R&B and dance music, Crack-Up takes a more organic approach to alienation. Unable to stop himself writing gorgeous melodies the album is full of beautiful passages of music, garlanded with Fleet Foxes trademark luscious harmonies and wonderful orchestrations Pecknold instead opts to repeatedly short-circuit them. At its most straightforward, Crack-Up features a digressive, segmented, prog-rock-style take on the sound of the bands first two albums, with mixed results. The most uncomplicated song here, Kept Woman, might also be the best, but theres no doubt that sometimes, abandoning the standard verse-chorus structure in favour of a more episodic approach leads to stunning juxtapositions. Take the lovely moment when Fools Errand suddenly shifts tempo midway through, slowing down as if exhaling; the way Naiads, Cassadies drifts into a wonderfully orchestrated instrumental passage; and the slow dissolve at the end of If You Need to, Keep Time on Me, where the song vanishes beneath a twinkling piano figure.
On other occasions, songs are allowed to ramble without really going anywhere. More than once, the listener is subjected to the depressing sensation of looking at the time elapsed and realising that the track seems to have been playing a lot longer than it actually has. And sometimes Fleet Foxes feel as if they might be buckling under the weight of their own pretensions. Its not entirely clear whether Pecknolds solemn intoning of the lyric on I Should See Memphis sybarite women stood at attention, pacing the basement like Cassius in Rome, or in KINSHASA! is intended to be as funny as it is, whether its a parody of a portentous self-important singer-songwriter, or just sounds like one.
Other tracks are more aggressively disjointed, jumping from one section to another in a style that a charitable voice might suggest recalls the daring splices Brian Wilson made on the Beach Boys Smile always a Fleet Foxes touchstone and a less charitable voice might say sounds remarkably like someone randomly jabbing at the pause button. I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar, plonked at the start of the album in you-have-been-warned style, cuts from (deep breath) a lo-fi recording of dirgelike acoustic guitar and mumbled vocals, to discordant strings to a melange of propulsive rhythms and harmonies interpolated seemingly at random with more lo-fi acoustic mumbling to a hushed guitar and vocal interlude, to a field recording of Pecknold singing to himself as walks, to the sound of splashing water, to a recording of schoolchildren singing White Winter Hymnal, a song from Fleet Foxes eponymous debut album. It is alternately beautiful, intriguing and quite irritating, as bands turning inward and indulgent are wont to be. Indeed, you can say the same thing about Crack-Up as a whole.