Review: ‘Crack Up’ is a gorgeous but challenging return for Fleet Foxes
In 2008, Fleet Foxes raced to the forefront of indie folk with its self-titled debut album. Built upon complex harmonies and the lyricism of founder and frontman Robin Pecknold, the band received acclaim for reviving 60s folk and bringing it back to mainstream popularity. Fleet Foxes entered a hiatus after its 2010 sophomore effort “Helplessness Blues,” but artists continue to display its influence. Josh Tillman — better known by his stage name Father John Misty — served as the band’s drummer for several years, and bands like Mumford & Sons rode the folk revival wave to Grammy Awards and widespread public recognition.
But in Fleet Foxes’ absence, the genre changed.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, who once recorded an entire album in an isolated snowy cabin, shifted his band’s sound toward experimental electronica in his album, “22, A Million.” Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers carried the indie-folk torch, even if their peaks never quite reached Fleet Foxes’ heights. And Father John Misty seemed to denounce his days spent with Fleet Foxes in interviews, all while delivering fiendishly ironic ballads over three albums.
Now, after nearly seven years, Fleet Foxes has returned with a third record, “Crack Up.” With a musical landscape that’s shifted since their exit, it became difficult to tell whether the band would try and change with it, or stick to its guns. “Crack Up,” an hour-long progressive folk odyssey, manages to do both.
Thanks to Pecknold’s vivid songwriting and a newfound expansiveness, the album is consistently gorgeous. But it’s also profoundly challenging and uncompromising, offering few entry points for casual listeners. Those who fully commit to the experience, though, are sure to reap the rewards.
Harmony continues to drive Pecknold’s songwriting, especially on songs like “Kept Woman.” The sweeping ballad features some of the most stunning vocal work the band has ever produced. Other highlights, like the three part opening suite “I am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar,” showcase the instrumental progress the band made during their time off. Strings and percussion make regular appearances, creating a cacophonous triplet rhythm that drives the track forward for six-and-a-half-minutes.
“Mearcstapa” maintains the album’s sense of discovery with a striking mix of musical palettes. Electric guitar, an instrument that the band has used sparingly in the past, is more prominent, blending melody and rhythm in ways that will still please fans. The experimentation, however unexpected, was clearly rewarding for the band, and it shows; these are the most complex arrangements of its career.
The album’s musical successes also depend on the length of these songs. The music’s structure is vast and unexpected considering the band’s previous releases. “Crack Up” is unquestionably a progressive folk album, but Fleet Foxes have expanded the depths of its musical ambition. Songs regularly stretch past seven minutes and are divided into multiple parts. The commitment to tracks that are almost orchestral in size helps move the band beyond its simple folk trappings.
Fans of Fleet Foxes’ older material will find plenty to explore. The band’s music retains its signature lush sound while pushing ahead to new frontiers. Just don’t expect a simple listening experience; “Crack Up” is long, unwielding and rewarding all at once. Weathering its wealth of material is a task that requires commitment, but sticking to it yields one of the best albums 2017 has had to offer so far.
Listen to “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” off of “Crack Up” below:
Follow Dana on Twitter @AlstonDalston.