Cross Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes at your peril. As a recent review of Crack-Up over at Stereogum did, prompting the frontman himself to take to the comments and clarify (in the most delicious way) just how off-the-mark the critic was.
The problem with most critique – including our own – is that at some point in the lead-up to a piece there’s a roadblock in communication. The artist wants the art to speak in certain was, the listener interprets it in their own; like some twisted version of Blankety Blank, both take umbrage if the answers don’t match.
But it’s silly to think anyone should be above criticism either. We’re not here to sit and try and assess Pecknold’s mental state as he drew the canvas for this, Fleet Foxes’ third and most sprawling album. And by his own admission the lyrics are the least interesting part – we’re used to Pecknold’s odysseys in verse, often suited more to lit review than being, well, lit as fuck.
If Pecknold has stated that he wanted to make a balm of a record, then it’s hard to argue against that. While waves might crash against the rocks on the cover, a fire rages in the background – somehow in a world of ever-evolving chaos, Pecknold has managed to find a moment of stasis on songs like Cassius – (yep, that hyphen is intentional; like his alt-folk contemporary Bon Iver, we have a lot of typographical flourishes to navigate in the track list). It’s a song about participating in protests, against injustice, but it tells a story of its own – from gazing out of the window to engaging in it completely, all accentuated musically till the string-driven denouement.
Pecknold is a storyteller. He always has been, whether it’s been twee tales of folk or something more relevant to both him and us. “Who stole the life from you? Who turned you so against you?” he sums up all too accurately on – Naiads, Cassadies, gently holding up a mirror to the millennial scourge before dropping it to reveal an entire other world out there. On a song like this – probably the best of the album – he both pinpoints the pain and takes the time to soothe it afterwards.
And of course, those harmonies live on. Hell, long after Fleet Foxes leave us those harmonies (e.g. on Kept Woman, beautifully adorned with piano and guitar) will chime through the genre for an age. There are songs so simple that they could echo into a lonely cavern (If You Need To, Keep Time On Me), and there are songs that indulge in two- or three-act drama, even touching nine minutes in one place.
Is it a difficult album? Yes, for many reasons. It lacks, perhaps by choice, that instantly-affecting quality of their previous albums; if it’s impenetrable then it’s certainly intentional. These aren’t songs to enjoy in the traditional sense per se – they’re meticulously constructed, designed to be revisited, and suffering from the same highs and lows as they did on Helplessness Blues. They’re by turns frustrating, occasionally cracking-up themselves to reveal a marvel of light, with I Should See Memphis the most unspeakably beautiful marriage of strings and guitar they’ve ever created.
Pecknold has a lot to say on this album. Whether it’s through his own remarkable intellect or the way he deploys chameleonic arrangements in the space of one song, he resolutely gives us his pastoral world-view. And it can come across like a superiority complex, a mountain so high that few may stick around to climb it despite the rewards. Fleet Foxes occupy a similar space to Justin Vernon at the moment – both seem slightly disillusioned with their own early success, instead choosing to remain more introspective and offer something that’s at least true to themselves rather than any expectations around them.
With that in mind, there’s only ever going to be one true authority on the mood and intention of Crack-Up. We can speculate and extrapolate all we like but in essence it’s much the same way we’ve crafted this review: it might not reveal much on first encounter, it might not even make sense in the dense thicket of constructed phrase. Instead it’s a truth only really known by the author and, in the case of this record, that’s only ever going to be Pecknold himself. For the rest of us, it’s simply a labyrinthine joy with layers to applaud.