Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up review – luscious harmonies and lyrical heaviness

The band’s 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/Ōdaigahara. A track from the band’s latest album, it now features 27 annotations in Pecknold’s hand, covering everything from its allusions to the paintings of Goya to its use of homophones. There are even three paragraphs devoted to the song’s 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. That’s 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 isn’t 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 what’s 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-rock’s 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 Iver’s 22, A Million, another wilfully abstruse record made by an American alt-rocker who is disproportionately unsettled by a modicum of fame. On Crack-Up’s 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.

Watch the trailer for Crack-Up on YouTube

The lyrics on both albums are elliptical and dense – Crack-Up is clotted with literary and historical references, to F Scott Fitzgerald, Knut Hamsun, the US civil war, ancient Egypt, the philippics of Cicero, Katie Price’s Perfect Ponies: Ponies to the Rescue, Book 6,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 band’s first two albums, with mixed results. The most uncomplicated song here, Kept Woman, might also be the best, but there’s 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 Fool’s 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.

Watch the video for If You Need to, Keep Time on Me on the band’s YouTube channel

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. It’s not entirely clear whether Pecknold’s 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 it’s 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.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear review – beautiful songs of unclear meaning
It’s hard to tell where Joshua Tillman ends and his alias Father John Misty begins – but perhaps it doesn’t matter when the songs sound this good, writes Alexis Petridis

Alexis Petridis

05, Feb, 2015 @3:00 PM

Article image
John Legend: Darkness and Light review – musical weirdness and lyrical bleakness
Emulating his idol Marvin Gaye, the singer has fashioned the personal and the political into a heartfelt musical statement

Alexis Petridis

01, Dec, 2016 @3:00 PM

Article image
Fleet Foxes – review
Fleet Foxes sound so magnificent it scarcely matters there isn't much to look at. The vocal harmonies are fantastic, but what is surprising is how muscular the band sound, says Alexis Petridis

Alexis Petridis

01, Jun, 2011 @5:34 PM

Article image
Big Red Machine: How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last? review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Aaron Dessner and Justin ‘Bon Iver’ Vernon recruit Taylor Swift, Fleet Foxes and more for this album full of misty autumnal beauty – and a quiet punch

Alexis Petridis

26, Aug, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project review – potent, beautiful songs and minor lyrical missteps
A few unconvincing moments aside, Polly Harvey’s latest is a raucous and powerful set of highly memorable songs

Alexis Petridis

14, Apr, 2016 @2:00 PM

Article image
Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up review – immersive, shifting creations

Kitty Empire

18, Jun, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Fleet Foxes: 'You can fake a guitar solo. You can't fake your voice'
Back with a warm new album, Robin Pecknold talks about how the pandemic cured his anxiety – and how the Beach Boys’ golden falsettos changed his life

Laura Barton

23, Sep, 2020 @11:28 AM

The first 10: Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes
Graeme Thomson unearths the missing link between hymns, field songs and Brian Wilson

Graeme Thomson

14, Jun, 2008 @11:00 PM

Fleet Foxes | Pop review
Academy, Newcastle
Their stagecraft may be in short supply, but who cares when the music sounds as gorgeous as this, writes Dave Simpson

Dave Simpson

11, Sep, 2009 @9:15 PM

Fleet Foxes, Audio, Brighton

Audio, Brighton

Alexis Petridis

10, Jun, 2008 @11:06 PM