Friday, June 16, 2017

Fleet Foxes - Crack Up Review

Robin Pecknold's a man who values life not for the amenities it gifts, but for the knowledge he's able to seek. Many cherish life differently, and for Pecknold, after an exhausting tour following the release of the Fleet Foxes' 2011 LP Helplessness Blues, a return to schooling at Columbia University felt like a sound path for a man whose struggled to find his place. This isn't to say Pecknold's music prior to the minor Fleet Foxes hiatus was dimwitted and inept; quite the opposite. In fact, despite only releasing two albums, the Fleet Foxes acted as one of the more mature modern bands out there, respecting music, literary, and general history through Progressive Folk, poetic mythology, and archival factoids respectively. On Crack-Up, those three facets reach a new plateau, with Pecknold's robust wisdom combining with the group's effortless handling of Folk in a way that the Fleet Foxes have never achieved before. Crack-Up isn't as immediate or as appealing as their previous efforts, with a distinct darkness looming over the LP like an ominous cloud, but the complexity of the compositions, the delicacy of the lyrics, and the beauty pouring from Pecknold and the instrumentation help to prove, once again, why the Fleet Foxes are Folk's pacemakers.

That much was evident when 'Third Of May / Ōdaigahara,' the nine-minute epic, was released as a lead single back in March. Doubt over the group's return quickly evaporated thanks to the sheer audacity displayed, with infinite layers of instruments, multiple distinctive parts, powerful proses of shaky skepticism, and vocals that gleamed down from the heavens like the sun breaking through those gloomy clouds. 'Third Of May' set the tone for an ambitious return, and while that single acts as the album's centerpiece, the surrounding building blocks provide ample amounts of musical potency. 'Third Of May's' subsequent track, 'If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,' acts as a contextual epilogue, with both songs sharing the source of frustration and concession between Pecknold and Skylar Skjelset, longtime friends and bandmates. Even the next track, 'Mearcstapa,' seems to continue that path as we find Pecknold stubbornly refusing help from strangers in a time of need. All this, as is the norm with Fleet Foxes, told through intensely contemplative and meticulous poetry. At times Pecknold turns storyteller, like on the disparaging 'Kept Women;' other times ambiguous anomalous, like on 'I Should See Memphis.' In either case, or every, the lyrics bleed from the pen as if they were written to be read, not sung.

And yet, that's not the most impressive aspect of Crack-Up. That award goes to the production, which arranges itself as an ever-evolving pop-up folklore tale, with varying bends, creases, and cracks in the deteriorating parchment. Wheres 2008's Fleet Foxes or Helplessness Blues merely used Folk as a requirement to verify their shtick, Crack-Up echoes defiance with strong hints of progressive music tendencies. There's structural distinctions galore, whether it be the seamless three-piece opener 'I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar' that pants around quaint corners and emphatic hubs, or the breathless two-part narrative of 'Cassius, -' and '- Naiads, Cassadies' that exists as a rollercoaster of moods, tones, and paces, Crack-Up is never short on captivating moments; both large and small. Upon first listen, it wasn't the distant past that compared itself to the Fleet Foxes but more so the work of contemporary greats Radiohead. To me, Crack-Up would've been the likely result of a Radiohead experiment with Folk, ripe with grand orchestral arrangements, lush instrumentation, infinite layers, gorgeous vocals, and lyrics that pluck at the heartstrings while explaining universals. In other words, it's a critical darling, and the formal evolution of a well-composed band teetering on being a modern day gimmick.

This does, however, make it a challenging and burdensome listen at times. Like any Radiohead affair, listening to Crack-Up front to back is essential, to the point where removing any singular piece feels insulting. For Crack-Up, pacing is everything. And, much like any self-realized epic, with the highs comes lows. This is where my general disinterest towards Singer/Songwriter comes into play, a secondary genre that's used effectively here, but not enough to overcome the awe of 'Third Of May's' opening section or 'On Another Ocean's' closing one. Two songs specifically, 'Kept Woman' and 'I Should See Memphis,' teeter on boredom, without much formal growth to speak of. To me, these are necessary evils, moments of reflection after the magnificent events they're reflecting upon. Juxtaposed sparsely between the escapades of grandeur are subtle, or sometimes elaborate, Ambient fixtures, like 'Ōdaigahara' or the ending of 'Fool's Errand.' These, once again, help to separate the peaks from the valleys, and work better as nominal passages than entire works. The diversity displayed across the entirety of Crack-Up not only cause the 55-minutes to feel far more substantial, but engaging to the listener as well.

The question remains; is Crack-Up better than Helplessness Blues? Whereas the latter polished Fleet Foxes' artistic edges to create something fun and imperishable, the former focuses heavily on escaping expectation. Critically, Crack-Up fairs better, but day-to-day Helplessness Blues triumphs. However, even with definite standouts 'Third Of May,' 'Thumbprint Scar,' and 'Cassius, -' in tow, Crack-Up saves its best track for last; one that leaves a lasting impression. 'Crack-Up' effortlessly moves through Pecknold's self-contemplation, the band's own self-empowerment, and a final self-eulogizing with such poignant fluidity and palpable clarity. Acting as an opposing force to the three-part opener that jarringly maneuvers non-concurrent parts around, 'Crack-Up's' steady pace and emotional release feels all too perfect as an impactful finale. Pecknold, using his remaining breaths, gasps out the words "you alive" which sounds an awful lot like Ylajali; Crack-Up's initial title, and a word echoed earlier in the song. That name reveals the general concept mustering in Pecknold's mind. A fictional women in Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger (the same one that Crack-Up's cover owes its fame to), Ylajali is represented as a being with two opposing thoughts that don't align. Weakness and strength; I can't yet I must. Pecknold's uncertainty, ironically, made the Fleet Foxes' latest work their most ambitious, declarative, and undoubting yet.

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