Nick Bollinger considers the lyrical melodies and literary references of Fleet Foxes' third album.
Plenty can happen in six years, the length of time since Fleet Foxes last released an album. And on one level their new record could be heard as a chronicle of the changes Fleet Foxes founder and frontman Robin Pecknold has been through during that period.
But there are the things that remain constant too, Pecknold’s voice being one of them. It’s a strong beautiful tenor, and combined with his particular sense of melody and those ever-present harmonies, it really has to be considered as one of the most identifiable vocal signatures to come out of West Coast pop, up there with The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. It’s one of those sounds you only need to hear for a bar or two, to know who it is.
But it’s more than just an album of pretty tunes. In fact, the album is somewhat tortuous in its construction, which seems to reflect the path that Pecknold has taken in the half-decade between discs.
“After some thinking I’d say/I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machine/But I don’t know what that will be/I’ll get back to you someday soon” he sang in the title track of Helplessness Blues. So after six years’ rumination, what has he come up with?
If Helplessness Blues spoke to Pecknold’s worldview at the time of that album, the title of this new disc – Crack Up – hardly suggests a bright outlook. In fact, it’s a literary allusion, one of many that are stitched into this album, waiting for the bookish listener to unpick. This one is borrowed from the title of an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a chronicle of the writer’s own existential crisis, in which he employed a fragmented technique to mirror his subject. And in a quite literal way that is what Pecknold and his band are doing, right from the opening track which is full of hard cuts between what sound like completely different songs, one a kitchen demo, the other a full-blown symphonic rock song.
These sonic fractures match the emotional, spiritual and existential ones Pecknold sings about. It’s an intellectual idea that could have been a musical disaster, and it doesn’t provide an easy way into the album. But musically things do settle, and while Fleet Foxes return a couple of times to this cut-up technique, these dislocating passages are offset by moments of sheer lyrical loveliness.‘Kept Woman’ has the kind of melody David Crosby would have been proud to have written, and there are many other moments of such beauty.
So what was Robin Pecknold doing for those six years between albums? It appears that for part of that time he was engaged in tertiary study, and I’d pick he took a course in the classics. Though there were already hints of it on the earlier records, Crack Up is steeped in classical references – Greek and Roman, Asian and Egyptian. In the song he calls ‘I Should See Memphis’, I don’t think he’s planning a trip to Graceland, but rather the ancient Egyptian city.
The songs are personal, poetic and inward-looking, and the classical imagery only universalises them up to a point; that is, you probably need to grasp the references to really appreciate what he’s saying. Perhaps the closest Pecknold gets to summing up his theme is in the song ‘On Another Ocean’ where he sings ‘wherever you run you see all you leave behind you’. And yet Crack-Up can easily be enjoyed on other levels. You can simply bask in the lovely tunes and the sonority of the words.
Unlike Bon Iver or Mumford and Sons – other acts that more or less rode in on the same nouveau-acoustic wave – Pecknold and co haven’t radically departed from their original sound. They have refined it, and you’ll find the symphonic moments more majestic than ever, while the more folkish passages have never been more intricate or beautiful.
With that initial wave now having broken, Crack Up doesn’t feel particularly connected to anything else around at the moment. Rather, it’s a standalone album by a singular group, who take what they do somewhat seriously but can’t help producing some gorgeous music while they are about it.
Crack Up is available on Nonesuch Records.