After a five-year hiatus caused by the same internal fractures that fired Father John Misty off into the stratosphere, Fleet Foxes have returned with the aptly named 'Crack-Up'. There's a new world weariness to Robin Pecknold's voice as it traces tails of separation, longing and self-doubt, often in a newfound baritone that heavily resembles the lived-in growl of Leonard Cohen. Fragile yet shining with a new-found purpose, 'Crack-Up' genuinely does sound like a broken band piecing themselves back together again.
The subtle changes incurred by this reassembly should be welcomed in one sense, as they help it avoid the failings of 'Helplessness Blues' (i.e. being a retread of 'Fleet Foxes' with a tiring tendency to crawl up and mope when it should have been spreading its wings and soaring). But this progression comes at a price. No matter how many times you listen through this sprawling album, it's impossible for the brain to retain a single melody well enough to hum.
On 'Crack-Up', Pecknold and his pack no longer knit songs around anchoring leitmotifs. Instead multifaceted pieces twist and transform in a similar manner to Grizzly Bear's 'Ready, Able' or the band's own live favourite, 'Mykonos'. Sometimes these 'songs' are divided up internally à la Green Day's self-contained yet episodic 'Jesus Of Suburbia' ('I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar' and 'Third of May / Ōdaigahara'), sometimes they spill over into the mixes of neighbouring tracks ('Cassius, -' and 'Naiads, Cassadies'). In this way melodic threads can be picked up and cast aside at will by the band, creating a more abstract piece of work than they ever have before that is most definitely best experienced in its entirety all at once.
The result of this is a record that feels more widescreen but less high definition. Most songs blur and bleed into one another to create vague (if beautiful) impressions, obscuring the crisp, clear images that even 'Helplessness Blues' never lacked. The record's swirling mass is neatly mirrored in Pecknold's repeated references to oceans and other "basking, gnashing, foaling, feeding" bodies of water.
Despite the record's nebulous nature, there are are still a few great individual tracks that stand up on their own. 'Kept Woman' in particular cleverly utilises the same 'cascading piano' effect that repeatedly punctuates Radiohead's 'Moon Shaped Pool', giving the impression that the track is gradually melting and spreading out to create a lush puddle of sound. Meanwhile 'If You Need to, Keep Time on Me' flips effortlessly between major and minor scales, showcasing the extent to which Pecknold's skill as a songwriter has blossomed over the past decade. But little snippets of 'White Winter Hymnal' that can be heard at the end of the opening track serve to remind the listener that, despite what has been learnt along the way, much has also been lost.
If 'Fleet Foxes' was an unbroken hike up from the foothills into the peaks of the Appalachians, 'Crack-Up' is more like the winding train ride home. Familiar scenes and mighty views might be glimpsed through the window, but the landscape that flashes past is too vast and un-knowable to delight the senses in the same way it did on foot.
7/10 Words: Josh Gray
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