You know, it seemed like such a cliched thing to do, reviewing the new Fleet Foxes album on Dolby Disaster, that I almost didn’t do it. Here we are, after all, braced within what I have touted on this site as perhaps the best year in music ever (leave it to Vinyl Me, Please to start talking about video game soundtracks), and Fleet Foxes are just so PERFECT! If they were on Seinfeld, I bet they’d never take reading material into the bathroom with them.
Well, it just so happens that I’m in a mood today where I’m sort of scared of the world, and the Low Anthem really suck, but I’m still in the mood for some mellow, calming music, having listened to My Morning Jacket – Z probably a thousand times.
Another reason, though, why I’m compiling a certain brand of anxiety upon embarking on this review, is that I was ridiculously slow in cottoning on to Helplessness Blues, I must confess. Indeed, few would argue, it was definitely similar to the self-titled debut, and didn’t make an exorbitant amount of an impression upon first listen. Plus, Fleet Foxes, “helpless”? They were the veritable posterboys, megastars, of music’s latest craze, indie folk, even getting an invite to play on SNL. Indie folk could never really get displaced by Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen, could it? Hmm. Forget I said that.
Anyway, considering this is the band’s first album in six years, they’ve certainly kept a relatively zealous fan base — they’ve got many cult followers all across the country, and it seems like every time we hear rumors about a Robin Pecknold side project, it’s a big deal. When he scored the play Wyoming in 2015, it made major Pitchfork news.
Amanda Petrusich in one of her blurbs on the Foxes made the comment that the music sounds anachronistic — like something from the old times, with charming simplicity, just transposed on to this bustling modern day in which we currently live. Indeed, this is much of what makes the Foxes good — although from an urbane American coast city, they also have a certain earnest, good-ol’-boy quality about them, and can get disarmed by a lost male-male friendship (“He Doesn’t Know Why”, my favorite Foxes song). Crazily, I think, this phenomenon has only been further compounded in the case of 2017, as compared to how it stood in 2008, what with the emergence of “sy borgs” in pop music (this was a term I saw used for Taylor Swift on Pitchfork one time), and we now live in a time when the terms “nice”  and “sensitive”  have developed negative connotations. Fleet Foxes, for as critically acclaimed and as popular as they were in what seems like just the other day, almost stand now as crashing a party they weren’t invited to. They don’t even have the dark ominousness of Grizzly Bear (who also have an album excitingly coming out later this year). Well, we’ll see how far benevolent simplicity gets them here, I guess.
Just a thought upon looking at the album cover: it’s beautiful. It depicts the natural splendor of America’s landscape, rendered with bold covers and soft, delicate but forceful images of crashing water. In a way, it fits in perfectly with what the band’s m.o. in the past has been and what it may be now: when in doubt, turn away from the mob, turn away from the masses and represent what is pure.
On epic opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” Robin Pecknold’s vocals burst onto the scene first, sounding crazily damaged and scarred, with no guitar or percussion accompaniment. The effect is a bit disconcerting in a good way and later when the background vocals, guitar and drums come in, the harmony congeals as something representative of faith in others — climbing out of one’s hole of solitude and truly trusting your friends, or bandmates, once again. Any fan of this band should hardly be surprised by what’s rendered here as a masterful melodic sense — the song’s abrupt starts and starts and gentle, subtle, swirling strings are two particular marking points set against the rest of the band’s catalogue. The soundscape is also flanked nicely by a strummed mandolin.
“Cassius, -” (sic), the second track, opens with an electronically affected and looped bass synth, the rhythm of which the acoustic guitar conjoins in lockstep after about five seconds. Once again, Pecknold’s vocals are curiously lugubrious and despair-ridden, very much calling to mind Bradford Cox on Microcastle’s languorous middle segment a la “Calvary Scars.” “Cassius, -” then floats on innocuously enough in the vein of essentially median Fleet Foxes fare, the five minutes of which though threatens to end before you’re even ready, all the while with no clear chorus having really materialized within the song. In the end, after the outro, it bleeds directly into track three “- Naiads, Cassadies,” which begins with the lines “Who stole the life in you? / Who turned you so against you?” The intensity in Pecknold’s voice, as it was on Helplessness Blues, is SLIGHTLY waned from its 2008 territory, but musically the band is exhibiting many strengths here of constant shifts in key and mood, and the production highlights the gentle kick drum, snare and cymbals as if they were mischievous hands tapping on all different points of a metal pup tent in the night.
On “Kept Woman,” over gradual, arpeggio guitar picking, the lyrics remain general and iconic — like narrative American poetry which can be held as rife with interpretable qualities. It might seem weird how jazz could influence indie folk (essentially the territory the band was in upon their spawning as well), but throughout this song and this project as a whole, Pecknold and company seem in constant evasion of establishment within either major or minor keys — indeed, it’s almost like a constant dance back and forth, which keeps the music fresh and mesmerizing.
“Third of May / Odaigahara,” from what I remember, was the song the band shared back in March or so, and listening to it you can certainly understand why: it comes across very much as a potential anthem like “He Doesn’t Know Why” or “Lorelai.” But it’s eight minutes long, and the second multi-titled epic on the album (the titles of track two and three, just like the music itself, bleeding into each other almost as if to make up for it)? For how great this song is, I think my favorite part is that Pecknold sounds at times awkward, like he’s either giddy or scared, or a little bit of both — or just plain old fragile, like the album title of a classic rock staple we all know and love. It reminds me of the positive Pitchfork connotation of “awkward” applied to Weezer, which they of course went on to lose on what I still consider to be a great album, the green album. The first half of this song, four minutes, zooms by literally as if it were a minute and a half, rolling continually and polymorphously true to form like the sophisticated metal sphere this band always seems to cosmically represent, in their own unique way. “Odaigahara” takes a slightly minor-key disposition to the anthemic major of “Third of May,” and the second half of this song surprises me in actually holding water as epic, while really, at nearly nine minutes, still fairly playable as a radio song. Dissipation into woodwind burps and pristine guitar picking ethereality ensues at this song’s culmination, with hypnotic effects.
Wow, I could write a book on Fleet Foxes without even trying. I’m only half way through this album, and I feel exhausted by the full-meal amount of genuine folky meaningfulness and feeling conveyed here. To be honest, at this point, they’ve already surpassed their peers, which would maybe be like the Lumineers, Junip and My Morning Jacket, and maybe the Avett Brothers (he** I dunno). Beach House is doing things far more lavish and poppier these days. Robin Pecknold’s vocals steal the show all over this album (much like Victoria Legrand’s do, granted). “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” is absolutely brilliant. Oh, I need to. What I don’t even need, really, is to listen to the rest of this album, so awed am I already by the bulbous beauty conveyed within it. I feel like I definitely need to smoke some weed if I listen to the rest of this thing, and I have to work today… longer than it has to be, lacking just SLIGHTLY in vocalist emotiveness but doing more than it has to in the way of musical innovation and jazz, Crack-Up will buddy up more than aptly with the two extant Foxes albums, foreseeably soundtracking some cold, lonely winter nights and therefore vying firmly for stocking stuffer of the year. It’s really like a brief glimpse away from the rat race that has captivated American both in music, politics and sociology at large.