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Album Review: Crack-Up (2017) by Fleet Foxes

There are few albums I’ve been more anticipated for this year than Crack-Up. Coming six years after the band’s last release – the stellar Helplessness Blues – it was difficult to predict what direction the Fleet Foxes would take next; the lead single from the album, ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’, a sprawling almost 9-minute track, suggested that it would at least be an ambitious direction if nothing else.

Ultimately, Crack-Up feels like a natural progression from Helplessness Blues, with Pecknold’s work growing more complex and experimental both in terms of music and lyrics. The album opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ (I guess you could say he’s gotten more experimental with his song-naming as well…) sets the tone immediately, a gorgeous and complex track. There’s a lot going on in this song, with it passing through a seemingly endless amount of phases, and it can come across as a bit of mess on first listen. The lyrics also aren’t as immediately accessible as those on the band’s older albums, being a lot more cryptic. (Though still gorgeous: ‘I was a child in the ivy then / I never knew you, you knew me’.) It did take a while for the song to really click for me – it’s one of those songs that really demands your attention. But once you wrap your head around it, there’s a lot to love about it.

The following tracks aren’t quite as complex, though they still show the band pushing out into new territory – mainly lyrically. While the band’s last album was very introspective and focused on Peckhold’s doubts and depression, Crack-Up shows Fleet Foxes exploring other subjects such as police shootings (‘Cassius, -’) and gender equality (‘- Naiadas, Cassadies’). Both songs are fantastic; instrumentally they don’t do much that we haven’t seen from Fleet Foxes before – though ‘Cassius, –’ does open with a stuttering synth – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The band are able to achieve a lot with a couple of guitars, a bass and a drum set, as the latter track shows.

‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ can be seen as the album’s centrepiece and is perhaps the most ambitious track on Crack-Up. Musically, there are enough ideas in it to fill several songs. Like the album’s opener, the track twists and turns, passing through multiple phases – and like that song it took me a few listens to wrap my head around it. The refrains on ‘Third of May’ are particularly gorgeous, as well as the long, drawn-out outro. Lyrically, the track details Robin Peckhold’s friendship with bandmate Skye Skjelset and the distance felt from him in the years between albums. There are also a lot more lyrical threads in this song as well – and Peckhold has even gone so far as to annotate the track line by line himself. ‘Third Of May’ leads smoothly into the much simpler, ‘If You Need To, Keep Time on Me’ – a track which deals with the same central theme but in a much more straightforward manner. It’s one of the quieter moments of Crack-Up and another of my favourites. It shows that despite the album’s general complexity, the band can still put out a song that’s simple and moving.

The second half of the album is slightly weaker than the first – though that’s more to do with how incredibly strong Crack-Up’s opening stretch of songs is. A few songs in the second half, such as ‘Mearcstapa’ and ‘Fool’s Errand’, get lost in the mix of the album a little bit, not particularly standing out. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some incredible moments in the album’s back half; ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’ recalls Helplessness Blues lyrically, with its first half addressing Peckhold’s feelings of isolation and paranoia, finding himself unable to trust anyone. The second part of the song (the ‘June’ part) then feels slightly like a pep-talk, with Peckhold trying to build himself up again after wallowing in his emotions in the first part.

The track ‘Crack-Up’ closes the album incredibly well. The song’s title can be seen as both personal and political – referring to Pecknold’s feelings towards himself as well America’s current political situation. In one of the album’s most interesting moments, the song closes with the sound of Pecknold running down a flight of stairs. It’s a moment that encapsulates the album – at least lyrically – incredibly well, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. It might represent Pecknold simply wanting to escape from everything, the evidently messed up world, or equally, it might just show that he’s finally ‘cracked up’ – tired of spending so much poring over his feelings, just saying ‘screw it’ in a way.

Crack-Up is a gorgeous and meticulously put-together album. It’s not the sort of album that hits you immediately, and you’ll likely find that it’ll take quite a few listens to even scratch its surface. This lack of accessibility, especially compared to Fleet Foxes’ past releases, may end up isolating some of the band’s more casual listeners, but I’d say that the album is an incredible success. The band have really achieved something incredible here.

Best Tracks: ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’, ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’, ‘On Another Ocean (January / June)’.