Fans of their beloved 2011 record Helplessness Blues have been waiting anxiously for the Fleet Foxes to make a triumphant follow-up record that would continue to speak to their increasing millennial angst. In fact, a lot has changed in the six years since its release, including the explosion of said angst and the term “millennial,” and it could be argued that Helplessness Blues was a pioneer of tapping into those fears and insecurities that just feel commonplace to us now. We may still be afraid and uncertain, but we’re a bit more comfortable with it than we were back then. On their new record Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes seem to be on the same wavelength, as frontman Robin Pecknold and his band continue their exploration of identity and finding a place in the world. Though we’ve missed them all these years, Crack-Up feels like it’s hitting us at the right time, when we are all searching for answers in the midst of chaos.
Sonically, Crack-Up is even more adventurous than Helplessness Blues, incorporating an experimental mash-up of genres and sounds that occasionally veers toward dissonance, but ultimately keeps composure. In the middle of opening track “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar” the door closing and the sound of Pecknold humming to himself like he’s making a voice memo in his phone could be off-putting, but instead feels artfully and delicately dropped in. The first low, breathy notes of this three-part song has hints of an introverted moody tone poem, a la Arthur Russell. But then it bursts into vibrant, orchestral harmonies and we are reminded how big the Fleet Foxes’ sound is. When Pecknold breaks away for his first stunning solo, we are reacquainted with his singular, clear voice, which seems to be able to cut through anything.
Crack-Up is a dense work with endless caverns to explore. You can zone out and listen straight through as the songs bleed into each other, or you can take your time and pay due attention to the details. Either makes for a sublime experience of the record, one that will likely inspire many revisits. Songs like “Cassius, – ” and “Maercstapa” have a grandiosity to them, like scores for some epic, mountainous scene. Others, like the stunning “Third of May/Ōdaigahara” and “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” are reminiscent of the Helplessness Blues aesthetic. Their melodies have more hook, and less abstraction. But as with most Fleet Foxes songs, all of these songs inhabit multiple identities from start to finish, never ending as they’ve begun. “Third of May/Ōdaigahara” goes from dreamy pop folk to a haunting and almost foreboding symphony, and then a quiet, stripped down ballad.
For what it’s worth, Fleet Foxes are still a folk band at their core, but Crack-Up is an inquiry into something far beyond that. As they continue to mine self-doubt and a looming and uncertain future, their music is a reflection of that. And as long as we are all searching for meaning and a sense of belonging, we will be compelled to follow them.