Six years after their last release, Fleet Foxes return with an album that’s decidedly more Smog or Skip Spence than CSNY
“Wide-eyed leaver, always goin’ … ”
—“Grown Ocean,” the final song from Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues
These harmony-coated parting thoughts were quite literally the last thing to be heard from Fleet Foxes for nearly six years—and they proved strangely prophetic. After his Seattle-area quintet wrapped up its worldwide tour for the 2011 album, founding member Robin Pecknold decided that rather than record what he believes would have been “a pretty bad follow-up album,” he would instead take an extended leave from his own band, move to New York City and enroll in Columbia University’s School of General Studies. For the past five years, Pecknold has spent his time attending a variety of liberal-arts classes (including several in music theory) while using his new locale and life circumstances as songwriting inspiration. All of these pursuits cohered when he reconvened Fleet Foxes to record the band’s long-awaited follow-up, Crack-Up (Nonesuch), named after a 1940s-era collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald essays, written mostly for Esquire magazine, in which Fitzgerald famously insisted that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” It’s a theorem Pecknold can relate to.
“I was all-in on music from ages 15 through 26, and it didn’t seem like continuing to work on music full-time was actually a way to make the music any better, or more actualized,” he says. “After high school, I took it as a badge of honor to not go to college. I was self-directed and happily honored that; looking at my idols, none of them had gone to college, either. It was that kind of calculus. So I kind of did the opposite of that: flipped every assumption and went into the experience very open-minded. Plus, Columbia has a program for older students, set up for veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. It felt good. There’s a Chekhov quote: ‘If you want to work on your art, work on your life.’ That was my mantra. Going to college was almost like cross-training for me.”
Crack-Up allows Pecknold the freedom to flaunt an otherworldly strangeness that was largely missing from Fleet Foxes’ previous two albums. The first track, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” starts with a fast-forwarded snippet that connects it to the band’s last work, six years ago. From there, it’s almost a dialogue between two Robins—one higher-register and harmony-voiced, describing a journey in objective terms, while a second sotto voce persona (in a different key and tempo) serves as an internal narrative “answer” to these details, essentially two tracks fused together sonically and thematically. It demands close listening that previous CSNY-inspired gems such as “White Winter Hymnal” or “Mykonos” didn’t necessarily require. The album progresses in its non-linear way with acoustic-based tracks that sound a great deal like the Fleet Foxes we know (the high-lonesome “Naiads, Cassadies,” the still and almost madrigal-like “Kept Woman” and “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”), while others, such as “I Should See Memphis” and the propulsive, Yes-like “Mearcstapa,” feature sonic details that mark them as near to classic Fleet Foxes terrain, but with eccentricities and composition techniques that signal a deliberate departure from what came before.
“Part of the goal with the record is that I wanted to convince the listener, by the end of the album, that the band can go any way they want from here,” he says, “but to lead them there, gracefully. I didn’t want it to be totally alien. But I wanted it to pave a new road.”
Meanwhile, how did the rest of Fleet Foxes spend their time during this lengthy interregnum? Former drummer J. Tillman departed and now goes by Father John Misty; Pecknold’s high-school friend Skyler Skjelset recorded several solo albums and worked with Beach House and the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, among others.
“Looking back, I’m really grateful,” says Pecknold. “Skye made these solo albums, established his own identity as a musician. And when we came back together to work, it wasn’t so co-dependent anymore, it was a partnership like it hadn’t been before. He had a lot of new ideas, and we had enough time apart that all the vestigial 16-year-old dynamics kind of fell away. Now we come to this as 30-year-old men who respect each other and want to work together. A fuller conversation can be had.”