The day we have waited for has arrived. Fleet Foxes have finally returned with a triumph of an album. Those of us who have been longstanding fans of the band will no doubt recognize in Crack-Up, their new release from Nonesuch Records, an expansion and deepening of the artistry that marked their earlier work. A statement released by the band reads:
From the outset of recording, we aspired to make an album that could stand alongside our previous work, venture into its own territory, and that would leave a clear horizon for us moving forward.
Crack-Up does all these things and more. It is an alternately intimate, exuberant, and cerebral collection of songs. Robin Pecknold, the band’s frontman and chief songwriter, spent four years at Columbia University after 2011’s Helplessness Blues. It’s evident that he paid attention in class. Allusions to Shakespeare and Shaw and Beowulf and Goya and Muhammad Ali and classical history pepper the poetic lyrics alongside references to contemporary political events. The rhythm of Pecknold’s words at times seems to evoke the sprung rhyme of Gerard Manley Hopkins (see, for instance, the first song on the album, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar“). Musically, Pecknold draws from sources as diverse as medieval music (even mentioning the Dorian mode in some of the lyrics) and Ethiopian jazz. It is, needless to say, a sophisticated album.
Yet its sophistication remains understated. Fleet Foxes manage to avoid the self-important pretensions of their one-time drummer, Father John Misty. Even in songs that comment on the acid politics of our time, we never hear the kind of hamfisted preaching that FJM is so fond of. Instead, we have the sense that we are listening to creative representations, an earnest testimony of experiences and impressions filtered through disparate symbols of personal and civilizational import.
Song of masses, passing outside
All inciting the fifth of July
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 that they have drawn
What a breath of fresh air after Father John Misty’s pompous propaganda! Pecknold never allows his own agenda to get in the way of his first duty as an artist—producing good art.
Consider, if you will, the multiple layers of meaning he invests in one of his songs.
The painting you see above is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya, circa 1814. The image seems to have influenced one of the best songs on the album, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” The music video of that song shows us a splattering of multicolored paint. As it runs across the screen in extreme close-up, we can catch a certain formal resemblance to the flow of spilled blood. Taking into account the album’s overall political orientation, I’d suggest that it’s likely that Pecknold probably sees something of our own social moment in the painting. I would further guess that, as with other songs on the album, the allusion refers to recent cases of police brutality. After all, the painting depicts a dark-skinned man with his hands up about to be killed by men in uniform. If my interpretation is correct, then perhaps the point of the song as represented in the video is to suggest that even the death of innocents can be transfigured into art.
Finding that meaning requires a coalescence of art history, lyrics, video, music, the other songs on the album, and the news. It is, simply put, a minor feat of artistic genius. Of course, Robin Pecknold has provided some rather different elucidation of his own which is well worth checking out (he has a great comment on the line about “carved ivory”). Great art bears many meanings.
There’s more to like here. Rarely is an album composed of such tightly-wedded form and content. An oceanic motif winds through the lyrics. Likewise, the music rises and falls with the rhythm of the sea, crashing gloriously and settling into glassy streams. Listening to Crack-Up is like diving into a steaming sea, only to feel deeper currents of cool water tug from below. The pelagic theme even extends to the album’s visuals—its cover and the (very aesthetic) music video for “Fool’s Errand” both depict the rocky Pacific coast. And those astract arrangements of wet paint that move around in the video for “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” are probably watercolors.
Particular favorites include the haunting “Kept Woman” and the meditative and atmospheric “I Should See Memphis.” The titular, concluding song is pretty great, too. I can’t say that I have too many criticisms. A few of the songs are a bit bland. The album lacks some of the dark beauty that made Helplessness Blues so stirring. Alas. We can’t always get what we want. There is more than enough new spirit in this album to make up for that loss.
Fleet Foxes, Nonesuch Records