I could listen to the first 30 seconds of Fleet Foxes’ “Montezuma” on a loop for hours. The Seattle band’s pristine folk-pop melancholia proved so influential, and spawned so many wan sound-alikes, that sometimes it feels like we’ve all been listening to it on a loop for years. Accept no substitutes.
Not much to this: just peppy fingerpicking, Grand Canyon reverb, and frontman Robin Pecknold’s tasteful bellow, rising to an aching falsetto like a bald eagle wearing a tiny, deftly crocheted scarf. The pastoral grandeur and windswept-prairie melody is so startling that it hardly matters what he’s singing, but what he’s singing turns out to be awfully important, and plenty startling on its own:
For those who dismiss the Prestige Indie Rock lifestyle complex as an oblivious alternate universe, a stubborn way for shiftless young and not-so-young adults to stave off real life (and more popular music), those lines are a gorgeously delivered slap in the face, or a generation gap laid bare. All that reverb might just be the massive gulf between the boomers who grew up revering the ’60s rock gods (Dylan, the Band, the Beach Boys, etc.), and the millennials who grew up revering the indie-rock bands who channeled those gods.
Fleet Foxes broke through in 2008 with “White Winter Hymnal,” the harmony-dense highlight from their self-titled debut album, an elegant lumberjack-chorus earworm for people who fancy themselves impervious to earworms. Pitchfork hailed Fleet Foxes and the accompanying Sun Giant EP as the no. 1 album of the year. “Montezuma” led off 2011’s brighter, shinier, and louder Helplessness Blues, a lovely record considering it peaks in the first half-minute. From there, a lengthy hiatus, now concluded with Friday’s release of the band’s third full-length, Crack-Up. Though maybe you hadn’t noticed they’d been gone, as aggressively golden-hour-sunlit disciples abound.
Stadium-grade neo-folk proved to be big business in Fleet Foxes’ wake. Some of these new bands were fully harmless (fellow Seattleites the Head and the Heart, who are first-ballot Your Festival-Poster Font Size Is Too Large Hall of Famers). Some were harmless for exactly one song (stomp-and-shout goofballs the Lumineers). And some were harmless until they somehow got ungodly huge (the first Mumford & Sons album is pretty good; leave me alone). This music is easy to dismiss with a hackneyed artisanal-pickle or fancy-scarf joke (guilty); it’s easy to dismiss with a GIF. But nobody ever nailed the form as perfectly as Josh Tillman, the former Fleet Foxes drummer now far better known as Father John Misty. His SoundCloud parody “Prius Commercial Demo 1” is better, and funnier, than anything on Pure Comedy.
Anyway, Pecknold and Co. laid low while most of this went down; it is almost admirable that Fleet Foxes resisted the urge to soundtrack every hybrid-car ad for the last decade. Their sound is a full-blown lifestyle brand now, a folksy, easily digestible, upscale-farmers-market reverie they appear to want no part of further propagating. Or at least, their new music is way harder to digest, or crassly imitate.
From the moment it was announced earlier this year, Crack-Up had Difficult Third Album written all over it, starting with the lead single, which is called “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” and stretches to nearly nine minutes of coffeehouse-prog rumination. The full record is likewise noodly and gently meandering and stoner-profound as hell, ideal for those of you who watched the four-hour Grateful Dead documentary in one rapt sitting. Its moments of transcendence are fainter than the “Montezuma” variety and require far more patience. But this album is impressively unconcerned with impressing anybody, or even keeping anybody awake.
Crack-Up is heavy with song suites and arty abstraction: Track 1’s full title is “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” with whisper-soft folk drones suddenly shoved aside by overzealous bursts of industrial-grade strumming. There’s that GIF again. Highbrow references (ancient Rome, Greek mythology, Beowulf) abound, though Pecknold sounds most profound at his most plainspoken. “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” is a radically minimized take on the Band’s “The Weight,” far less grandiose but with a gentle, spooky sense of camaraderie, an endearing bro hymn that isn’t trying to sell you anything but its own hard-won peace of mind.
Spend enough time with Crack-Up, though, and you’ll start to regard pedestrian songwriting tropes like choruses as cheap tricks and cop-outs; a sort of tone-poem-based Stockholm syndrome takes hold, where you’re rooting for this thing to get as loopy and loping as possible. Here, now, is how Pecknold explained his aspirations for the sweet, languid album closer and title track to Apple Music’s Zane Lowe:
I’m happy to report that this is exactly the way the song “Crack-Up” sounds. It is tempting to eye-roll your way through all of this, to long for the straightforward campfire anthemia that made this band — and many other bands — mildly famous. This album’s hymns are much harder to sing along with, or derive much immediate meaning from: Pecknold is no longer lamenting how old he’s gotten, or for that matter straightforwardly lamenting much of anything. But the fact that they’re harder to sing and that much harder to interpret doesn’t make them any less holy.
Crack-Up is not a radical departure, or a repudiation of the plush flannel-as-cashmere folk-industrial complex Fleet Foxes helped spawn. But it drills deeper, stretches further, indulges loftier aspirations. It complicates a simple thing in inscrutable but occasionally beautiful ways. It’s the sound of heavily commercialized music decommercializing itself. Good luck buying a car to it.