Published on June 5th, 2017 | by Jeff Thiessen0
Fleet Foxes – Crack Up
Fleet Foxes new album, ‘Crack Up,’ shows us that they are able to work within — and rise above — the limitations of their genre.
Modern folk-rock’s tug, as far as I can really tell as I gaze into their pudgy, trusting faces, seems to be the assumption it’s easy for them to extract beauty from the mundane, or provide quirky takes on otherwise dull peace-driven psalms. Fleet Foxes are certainly one of the better acts out right now making folky tunes — they rarely fall into the meandering mush so many of their contemporaries so frequently do. Their strongest work shares a bit of a common groove from some of those other acts that tend to wear out their welcome in short order, but there is something else that stands out with the Foxes.
This is gentle music, but not necessarily aimed at gentle souls. There is an earthy undercurrent of driving power that propels most of the material found on their latest album, ‘Crack-Up.’ But we’re still left with a question as we listen to this record: is this hagged-out splendour or just a smoke screen for another folksy secret garden that does the trick until we notice another greener, lusher one down the block?
I suspect it’s mostly the former, although there are enough moments on ‘Crack-Up’ that warrant thinking aloud on the matter. One would probably be erroneous in saying Fleet Foxes hit the giddy-up button in terms of how these songs are arranged, but I could see why/how one could make that argument. Having said that, while this is an understandable conclusion to reach, ‘Crack-Up’ is obsessively arranged to sort of mask their strangled moans, very admirably never allowing their music to fall into the pimple-faced ode to a lakeshore type nonsense that this record could’ve fallen into without a second thought. We’ve seen it before with Decemberists, why couldn’t it happen to Fleet Foxes?
But it never does devolve into that wimpy, falsified portrait of spiritual cravings that many others have attempted to pathetically paint for us. ‘Crack-Up’ boasts a staggering consistency, always disarming us to some degree, before shifting into a rising hook that generally indulges their saccharine side. For my money, Pecknold’s voice has never been stronger, more purposeful than it does here. Take the lead ‘single’ and strongest cut on ‘Crack-Up,’ ‘Third of May/Odaigahara.’ For all intents and purposes, there should be a sort of wince factor as Pecknold almost chronologically details a lost (and likely regained) connection with a loved one. Perhaps it’s the commitment to lyrical brevity (a stark opposition to former member Father John Misty’s endless proselytizing) on the track, and this does definitely play to the band’s strengths. But it also has a great deal to do with Fleet Foxes’ willingness to provide a certain languid damage to their songs, the hippie dreaminess here is always cut through by a cynical urgency. ‘Third of May’ is beautiful, slyly attacks from a few places, and is always grounded by Peckhold reminding us:
“Life unfolds in pools of gold
I am only owed this shape if I make a line to hold
To be held within one’s self is deathlike, oh I know
But all will be, for mine and me, as we make it
And the size of the fray, can’t take it away, they won’t make it”
Like a good dose of midnight hash. And it doesn’t really stop with that lovely little single, the title track echoes no folk trends, and reminds us how good Fleet Foxes are at knowing what tempos work the best for what they’re trying to say. In some ways it reminds me a little of Pavement’s brilliant first EP ‘Perfect Sound Forever’ in the sense that every time you start to worry the sound might be drifting just a little too close to the aspects of the genre that are, um, nettlesome, the bottom drops out and finally we just admit that these records are really just going to represent pure, pleasurable sounds, and with no fine print.
To me, ‘Crack-Up’ represents Fleet Foxes at the absolute top of their game. It works as a summer soundtrack or headphones music travelling through the sterility of mid-Canada prairies. This is old-fashioned songcraft in the sense that while arrangements are fairly expansive and aggressively sophisticated, they always take a backseat to absolutely zero fucking wasted moments. Fleet Foxes throw their weight around on every single track, almost annoyingly aware of the genre’s depressing limitations, and always working around them in purposeful, meaningful ways that always allow us to be actively involved, as opposed to watching them, watch a sunset and sing about it. There is no personality crisis here, no outright rejection of folk decorum, this isn’t a band railing against the scene that they exist and continue to thrive within. These are pocketful of songs destined to become somebody’s favorite, although we’re all invited in. Be wary of any aficionado who swears by the virtues of folk music, but if they list ‘Crack-Up’ as one of their go-tos, green lights abound.