When I got my first car, Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues were two of the very first albums I bought, partly a side effect of my frantic attempts to absolve myself from succumbing to the toxic abyss of pre-teen pop music that still had a hold on me judging from my music library, but mostly because I had become infatuated with the music itself. I remember I wanted something more, something better from music at that time, and that I specifically wanted physical copies to put in my car’s driver’s side pocket even though during that time it seemed to me as if everyone was still drunk on digital downloads, still in the honeymoon era of marrying technology with, considering the state of affairs today, no divorce in sight. I listened to Robin Pecknold’s honeyed, passionate vocals and his guitar’s melancholic plucks mixed with the feeling of warmth due to the sunshine filtering through the windshield and the potent smell of my old volvo’s musty seats, and soon I began to equate Fleet Foxes with the ideas of freedom and independence, both of which I had to briefly set aside the moment I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped onto the pavement. Pecknold’s commanding, intellectual songwriting and intricate, thoughtful compositions managed to rid my adolescent mind of any anguish I had compiled throughout the day, and I could focus on the road ahead of me, save for the occasional existential thought now and again.
With the gift of the car came a series of unavoidable events that come with growing older – graduation from high school, entrance into college, the required reading of what seemed like hundreds of poems and essays for my English degree, writing countless papers over the research of countless literary ideas, and finally, early graduation from college with said English degree – and afterwards, perhaps because I didn’t seize as much from the experience as I should have, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was ripped painfully down the middle, simultaneously reaching for the future while beckoning for the past to continue. Pecknold drew a similar conclusion for himself after touring for Helplessness Blues, and in turn, returned to college and took up several recreational classes to clear his mind, shortly afterwards returning to music once he realized those things didn’t help him return to a sense of peace as much as songwriting and composition did.
And now, six years after the release of Helplessness Blues and five years after sliding it into my car’s cd player throughout the stress of growing up and realizing personal responsibility, I know that if I tried to listen to Crack-Up while driving, it wouldn’t give me the same freeing feelings of independence, but hopeful wistfulness instead – Pecknold’s journey, while perhaps not able to be replicated or even fully understood by the next person, the emotions experienced throughout are at least, to some effect, relatable, and after a few trying years of my own I understand that due to living in a world so unforgiving and unfair, it seems necessary to indulge in one’s own thoughts and desires – while at the same time avoiding to some extent the pressures and recent events of society – in order to provide it with any form of worthwhile contribution. And, Crack-Up, beautifully cinematic and painfully thoughtful, might be Fleet Foxes most meaningful contribution yet.
Part of the reason why Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues (as well as their Sun Giant EP) were so highly regarded when they were released was due to their sheer accessibility while simultaneously expressing such intellectual and visually dense narratives; you could instantly be transported to the Blue Ridge Mountains where no one knows your name, or lost and starry-eyed on Mykonos, or be placed at the edge of the ocean with hope and wistfulness wound so tightly together you couldn’t tell which you were feeling. The music, pure indie folk at its core, evoked ‘60’s instrumentals and nostalgic tones, somehow managing to be soft and piercing in delivery. The lyrics were thoughtful, even prophetic at times, as Pecknold lamented his struggles so eloquently you’d think they were yours – and in a way, they were, for his writing addressed relatable topics, including growing older, pining after love, and the various idiosyncrasies that come with being a human being – one listen to “Montezuma” and you’ll notice they can nail all three within a few minutes.
Crack-Up, on the other hand, doesn’t seem geared towards immediately pleasing the masses, or inciting one same stirring feeling of warmth or acceptance for a packed festival crowd. Instead of being a prophetic voice, Pecknold takes the role of quiet (and at times not so quiet) observer, making his comments on the injustices of the world then stepping aside for someone of higher privilege to take command. And, when considering all that’s changed since the release of their sophomore album, listening to Crack-Up just makes sense, more if you consider the current state of affairs to be even a little bit askew, or if you find yourself pining for who you used to be. Even the title, which is taken from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, is a reference to the state of being broken, evaluating everything that has happened up to the point of breaking, and ultimately having to venture back inside yourself in order to come out whole, albeit shaken, on the other side.
Whether you take Pecknold himself, the world, or even your own experiences into consideration when listening is completely up to you – even just regarding Crack-Up as a purely aesthetic album filled with beautiful noise would surely be completely valid in Pecknold’s eyes – there’s that much happening all at once. Of course, there are moments where Pecknold addresses said social injustices – “Cassius, -” narrates his participation in protests following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and “If You Want To, Keep Time on Me” as well as the title track both address post-election anxiety. All three, however, sound so incredibly heavy in terms of instrumentation and emotion and not easily able to latch on to in terms of a set melody or vocal line, solidifying his desire to not be that higher voice that guides others, and be more of a supporter of those who can do so more eloquently. Gone are the soft, colorful images of working in orchards and sitting in ragged woods – Pecknold instead places you at the edge of the jagged cliffs that appear on the album’s cover, forcing you to think rather than sing along with the melody so comfortably.
Though Pecknold has stated he doesn’t quite understand the over-analyzation of lyrics in music criticism, it’s incredibly difficult not to at least address them in Crack-Up, for they are incredibly and unbelievably beautiful – the main subject of the medieval, rustic tinged “Kept Woman” is addressed as a “rose of the oceanside,” and she’s asked to “widow [her] soul for another mile,” perhaps worn after years of being someone else’s possession. Pecknold claims she is not broken, but instead stronger than he, and, insisting he’s changed, claims they’re bound to be reconciled at some point in the future, revisiting that half-hopeful, half-wistful character once again.
Crack-Up is best, however, when Pecknold is caught up in his own emotions and possessed by real-world nostalgia, so taken with what he’s communicating that the instrumentals all tend to blur together into euphoria. “Fool’s Errand,” perhaps the cleanest and most evocative in terms of composition, are the first of the cinematic tracks, as the jolted, piercing instrumentals simulate galloping horses or crashing waves, while Pecknold’s vocals soar and glide in betwixt them. He is both enchanted by and disgusted with his desire to remain in his current state until he sees a sign, until his “sight dream” comes to mind – the chorus sang and supported instrumentally with such simultaneous chaos and frustration that it begins to sound like divine catharsis. It’s even better when the track has a moment of sudden epiphany – “On Another Ocean (January / June)” begins, as the title says, in January, with Pecknold riddled with suspicion and hesitation, then suddenly transitions to June, where all those questions are treated with sense of self-reliance where Pecknold screams into the void amidst blossoming instrumentals that, in one of the most beautiful phrases of the album – “I won’t bleed out/ if I know me” – back to emphasising the importance of self-indulgence in order to survive in a continuously changing society.
And of course, there’s the nine minute epic “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” the track that is nostalgia epitomized, the track that is more for Pecknold himself than anyone else – and that’s okay, given just how much honesty and genuine emotion oozes out of every second. It is essentially a track detailing the close friendship of Pecknold and band co-founder Skye Skjelset, and details of him are everywhere, including the title (Skjelset’s birthday falls on May 3rd). It’s an anthem for friendship as well as personal responsibility – Pecknold is “only owed this shape if [he] makes a line to hold” – and both seem to be needed today more than ever.
Crack-Up, though not as immediately warm and inviting as its predecessors, still succeeds in evoking that sense of breathless admiration and intellectual emotion Fleet Foxes began with, as well as the feeling of being lost in time. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have never experienced your own crack-up, the search for something bigger and bolder than yourself is, for the most part, universal.
photo by Sean Pecknold