SYDNEY—On the face of it, the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House is the perfect venue for Fleet Foxes, whose sweeping folk harmonies and vocal feats already sound as if they’re reverberating through the vaulted ceilings of an opera house or cathedral anyway. As frontman Robin Pecknold confessed to the audience on Friday during the first night of a four-show run in Sydney, it was the Opera House’s invitation to perform at its annual Vivid Festival that galvanized the band to finish their upcoming third album, Crack-Up, after a six-year hiatus.
Indeed, the finest moments of the show—just the fifth stop on the band’s current world tour—came when Pecknold’s elastic vocals were allowed to shine with relatively little accompaniment, as on the prayerfully intense moments of older songs like “Your Protector” and “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”, and the carefully enunciated syllables of the first part of “The Shrine / An Argument” (before the bass clarinet freak-out), replete with emphatic hand gestures.
But internationally recognizable as it is, the Opera House’s Concert Hall is also notorious for its spotty acoustics, and may not have been the best venue to showcase the band’s hefty new wares. They kicked off the show with the three songs that open the new album, instrumentally dense and muddily mixed suites “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” “Cassius, -” and ”-Naiads, Cassadies.” There was so much sound to take in—turbulent transitions necessitating frantic instrument changes, ambient water sounds, and generally the band at the heaviest we’ve ever heard them—that even after six years, it felt like too much too soon. Later, the relative sparsity of “White Winter Hymnal”, followed by the rollicking gallop of “Ragged Wood” (both from Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut), came as soothing, blessed relief.
At times with the new material, it sounded as though Pecknold was actively rebelling against the comelier qualities of his own voice, searching for something grittier and heavier: “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” and “Third of May / ?daigahara” are punctuated with brief mumble-sung asides, like the grumblings of some tragic Shakespearean figure. There’s also a stubborn horizontality to the verse vocals in the new “Fool’s Errand”, even more apparent contrasted with the Appalachian melodies of “He Doesn’t Know Why” and the satisfying bounce of “Mykonos,” from the 2008 EP, Sun Giant.
Pecknold’s lyrics also skewed rougher, hinting at the angst pervading the culture that Fleet Foxes are returning to. On the new song “If You Need To, You Can Keep Time on Me,” he sings, “How could it all fall in one day? / Were we too sure of the sun?” (There is also even a hint of feminist empowerment in one of Pecknfold’s recalibrated lyrics, from “Helplessness Blues,” the old line “And you would wait tables and soon run the store” becoming “And I would wait tables and you’d run the store”.)
Certainly, Fleet Foxes are plunging boldly into new terrain with Crack Up. Where the Fleet Foxes’ sound of old evoked the feeling of winter sledding or mountain gallivanting, the forthcoming album, especially in a live setting, feels more like spelunking—or a voyage into a mindscape rather than a landscape. Some fans may miss the fleetness. Others will relish the fact that these Foxes have apparently grown some serious teeth.
Watch an exclusive clip of Fleet Foxes performing “Mykonos” during the tour behind their first EP, Sun Giant, in February 2008: