It was perfectly reasonable to think we would never get another Fleet Foxes album.
After the band’s rustic self-titled debut took off unexpectedly in 2008 (eventually earning a Gold record for mega-indie label Sub Pop), frontman and core creative force Robin Pecknold poured himself fully into making its excellent follow-up, 2011’s Helplessness Blues.
Then, Fleet Foxes toured the world for a while, a process that seemed to take a toll on the band. Pecknold moved to Portland and dropped out of public life. His drummer left the band and became a star in his own right. Other members moved on to their own projects. A couple years ago, Pecknold popped back up as a student at Columbia University, then disappeared again. At some point, he took up surfing, apparently.
With the future of Fleet Foxes firmly in his hands, Pecknold seemed ready, willing and able to check out for good.
Thank the heavens he didn’t. Fleet Foxes’ third album, Crack-Up, is at once sumptuous and ambitious, a serpentine journey from the center of harmony-drenched folk-pop out to the edge of Pecknold’s brain and back. It is lovely, strange and generous, and ultimately a very welcome return for the Seattle band.
On Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes pushed back against the successful formula of their debut, expanding their palette and inserting some free-jazz skronk just because they could. Crack-Up, on the other hand, sounds like a band that has become perfectly comfortable with its wanderlust. The evidence comes early, as opening track “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” is three songs in one, evolving from yawning anti-tune to orchestral gallop to a collage of cozy vocal ooohs, sloshing water and found sounds.
Later, the band juxtaposes its bracing first single, “Third of May,” with a coda called “Odaigahara” that slowly drips with a sort of submerged desperation. “I Should See Memphis” is built out of insistent acoustic guitar, playful string arrangements and Pecknold’s Civil War and Muhammad Ali references, rumbled below his natural register. And “Mearcstapa” might be the album’s most curious track, with Pecknold singing inscrutable lyrics over restless rhythms and a mishmash of sounds.
These kinds of explorations might’ve sunk a Fleet Foxes album five years ago. Now, they hang together enough to counterbalance Crack-Up’s half-dozen classic, gorgeous gospel-roots hymns; the kinds of songs that have defined this band since it oozed from the gaps in a pile of old Beach Boys, CSNY and Simon & Garfunkel LPs just over a decade ago.
“Third of May” and “Fool’s Errand” and the title track, these are the faster, more urgent ones. The slower, sparser numbers include “Kept Woman” and “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me.” They are all paragons of songcraft, teeming with lush instrumentals, indelible melodies and the kinds of harmonies you expect to hear as you approach the pearly gates. There is perfection here in among the exploration.
Crack-Up is a collective effort, no doubt. These are skilled singers and players, up and down Fleet Foxes’ lineup. It’s Pecknold, however, who is blessed with not only an incredible songwriting gift, but also the unwillingness to sit still for very long. The latter took him away from music for a while, but perhaps that was necessary to recharge the former. It’s good to have him back.