Listening to the new Fleet Foxes
album is a little worrisome at times, meaning there are moments when it sounds like the band has become totally boring. Take the opening track, "I am All that I Need/ Arroyo Seco/ Thumbprint Scar," which begins with monotonous singing and extremely minimal guitar playing. It's not exactly the most gripping thing to listen to. But then, after only a minute, the song erupts into spacious sounds, upbeat guitar strumming and swelling string arrangements. And good lord is it gorgeous. Surprisingly, the best part of the song turns out to be that monotonous singing that kicked the song off. It eventually comes back, but by this point you'll have fallen so hard in love with its random, quirky returns that you'll be smiling like a fool whenever the band cuts back and forth between these quiet refrains and the general epicness of the rest of the song. Like a lot of the decisions the band makes on the album, it eventually makes total sense. You'll be saying to yourself, "Oh, now I see what you guys were doing there!" "I am All that I Need" turns out to be one of the most gripping tracks that the band has ever had, and, in typical Fleet Foxes fashion, it sounds like the soundtrack to a mythic fairy tale adventure. So goes the rest of the album, none of it ever really straying too far away from the successful formula that Fleet Foxes have established for themselves.
In fact, the final notes of "Grown Ocean," the last song on their 2011 masterpiece Helplessness Blues
, lead directly into the first notes of "I am All that I Need." This adds credibility to the feeling that fans won't be able to shake while they listen to Crack-Up
: the album's not so much an evolution of Fleet Foxes' sound as it is a direct continuation of who the band was six years ago. And no, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Fleet Foxes are the perfect example of a band you never want to change, purely because they're so great at what they do that they don't need to alter their sound in any way.
That's not to say there aren't some brief moments of surprise. Once the opening track fades out, becoming nothing more than the sound of waves crashing against a shore (oceans are a recurring thematic image throughout the album), "Cassius -" begins with synthetic pulsations and ambient noise, playing behind the acoustic guitars and Robin Pecknold's typically poignant lyrics ("Past my window, out in the street/ Life makes short work of all I see/ Men take the change from beggars/ Tight bound in sheets"). There are little unexpected touches like this throughout, but they're only ever short lived and fleeting. As usual, it's Pecknold's writing that takes center stage. "Cassius -," the title being a reference to Cassius Clay, the birth name of Muhammed Ali, tells a story about protesting police oppression ("When guns for hire open fire, blind against the dawn/ When the knights in iron took the pawn/ You and I, out into the night/ Held within the line they've drawn.") " - Naiads, Cassadies" seems to be about the ending of a harmful relationship between a man and a woman ("And did he act alone?/ Were any more complicit?/ When he would sing and offer the ring/ What older voice said, ‘kiss it?'").
That's not to say that the band's instrumentation isn't fantastic either. In fact, it's often illustrious. The plucked guitars, far-off synth trills and typically reverberant vocals of "Kept Woman" make it sound like a folk tune being played in a wide-open woodland on a rainy day. Yes, that's a weirdly specific image, but the most magnificent thing about Crack-Up
(and Fleet Foxes in general) is the band's ability to call your imagination away. While being, lyrically, very mature at times ("Third of May" and "If You Need To, Keep Time on Me" are about the growing distance between Pecknold and bandmate Skye Skjelset), the music is reminiscent of the innocent daydreams of a child staring out of a classroom window.
The album goes to some dark places, too. "On Another Ocean (January/June)" starts out as a song about a depressing lack of trust for others ("Wherever you run, you see all you leave behind you/ lies inside anyone you open"). Maybe this is Pecknold reacting to the success of Helplessness Blues
, and the pressure of critical acclaim. It sure sounds like it, anyway. This being the wintery "January" half of the song, it eventually kicks off into the brighter "June" half. This part of the song sounds like it's asking the narrator, "What did you expect?" with lyrics like "So, do you think the smoke it won't enfold you?/ Or there will be someone waiting for you/ Off in the distance, then?" Then the song ends with… jazz music? Saxophones? Um… okay, sure. Why not. You do you, Fleet Foxes.
Overall, if you were already a fan of Fleet Foxes, you know what you're getting into with Crack-Up
. Introspective lyrics, soaring melodies, and spacious instrumentation. What you loved before is all still there. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Helplessness Blues
, though, and a six-year release gap is a long wait that only adds more expectations… but come on, who cares? This album is gorgeous, and it's great to have Fleet Foxes back.
...just don't make us wait this long again, please?