Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up
Few bands can claim to have had as disjointed a decade as Fleet Foxes. The band made waves in the US & Europe during the late 2000s with a combination of folk roots, Beach Boy harmonies, and an independent ethos that had many labeling them this generation’s cornerstone of Seattle alt-rock. In a brief three years, their second album Helplessness Blues marked a shift in the band’s direction with its emphasis on deeply personal lyrics reflecting lead singer Robin Pecknold’s existential anxieties and a wider embrace of world music and instrumentation. Helplessness Blues earned a Grammy nomination and propelled the band to global status and recognition, but unbeknownst to many, took an interpersonal toll on the group. Pecknold had separated with his long-time partner Olivia in the aftermath of its recording while the band began to fracture. The following year brought more touring as energies dwindled: Tensions clashed, particularly as Josh Tillman (later, Father John Misty) found himself at odds with the homogenous band culture, putting it succinctly in a 2015 interview with The Guardian – “there were a lot of tears”. What followed, as Fleet Foxes abdicated the helm of indie rock from 2013 to today, was a great deal of personal discovery for the group. Pecknold pondered his future before finally deciding to pursue an undergraduate degree in English at Columbia University. Post Helplessness Blues Pecknold shaved his beard, cut his hair, soundtracked a documentary, and did tribute performances to Gene Clark and Pearl Jam. By megastar standards, it was a lazy Sunday. In an age where success is often measured by the willingness of an artist to treat their project as a perpetual motion machine-cum-hamster wheel, Pecknold has always moved a step slower. Fleet at his own rhythm. Now, Fleet Foxes have re-emerged with Crack-Up, further extending the band’s complex reach into the bottomless well of self-understanding. Chipped apart by life, Fleet Foxes arrive, re-assembled and running forward.
With that in mind, here is our discussion:
Tyler: I’d like to begin by presenting a hypothesis as to how the narrative construction of this thing works: Pecknold is attempting to encapsulate the complex emotions associated with distancing oneself from a past life and then reconnecting with it. Quite simply, the themes of Crack-Up have a great deal to do with retrospective emotions toward his band, his experience on a break, and what all has changed within him and what has stayed the same. These very literal life experiences are, of course, filtered through existentialist thought processes that find Pecknold speaking directly to a number of “characters” who played a pivotal role in his quarter life crisis: namely, a band mate & best friend, love interests, “Cassius”, and, of course, himself.
With respect to Cassius, I believe Pecknold is referring to Cassius Clay, or Muhammad Ali. On the song “Cassius”, Pecknold alludes to police violence, the ensuing protests outside his window (of which he took part), and the victims he marched for, “I was in a river, as if in water / Wife, a son, a son, a son, and a daughter”. Muhammad Ali died a month prior to Alton Sterling’s murder, “one month gone on his way”, and was a fellow artist who “cracked”. Whittled away from his former identity as a boxer to transcend beyond as an activist, and, in many ways, a philosopher. Throughout these songs that represent specific moments during his period of reflection and re-assembly, Pecknold maintains this theme of snapping out of a life once lived.
Andrew: I figured the reference was to the Roman figure of Gaius Cassius Longinus, who instigated the plot to kill Julius Caesar. More fuel for my Father John Misty conspiracy theories? Probably. And boom… there’s the realization that the line “like Cassius in Rome / or in Kinshasa” on “I Should See Memphis” is a DUAL REFERENCE to both of our ideas, the latter being a reference to the Rumble in the Jungle. But as you note, any of these moments could be as much Pecknold talking to himself as an external force. It’s a testament to their music, and the many-splendored thing it is, that such wildly disparate interpretations can be contained within.
The album begins with the phrase “I am all that I need”, which can be viewed as a continuation of “Grown Ocean” on Helplessness Blues. The second time the phrase is repeated in the song it gets clipped, almost as though in the moment of recognition Pecknold's entire being is transformed. There’s a similarly zen sense of self-realization and acceptance that runs throughout this song-cycle and the Fleet Foxes trilogy as a whole. It’s no accident that Buddhist imagery appears on the band’s early posters or that the Helplessness Blues cover features an almost elemental, mandala like depiction of the four seasons and a set of eyes moving from awake to closed (or is it the other way around…? Precisely.). Echoes appear on “Arroyo Seco” with the line “and the rising / falling / melting / freezing” and later on “Third of May” with the phrase “painted sand", confirmed by Pecknold as another mandala reference in his Genius annotations. Just as with the crashing waves on the album cover, elemental change is inevitable, and no less terrifying when manifested internally.
Tyler: “Did you change overnight / Did I change overnight” – here is one of those moments of reflection where, after some sort of crisis that forever alters one’s outlook and identity (for Pecknold a confrontation with mental wellness, purpose, and limitation), one wonders how exactly the shift occurred and what internal tension it came from. He’s speaking to himself, but also to fellow existentialist thinkers who have dealt with this alteration of the soul.
Andrew: That's a good point, in light of references to Fitzgerald, Beowulf, and the works of Norwegian author Knut Hamsun on this album. In a way, I’m reminded of the discourse around the most recent self-titled Dirty Projectors album when it comes to narrative voice. Much has been made about the cutting lyrics in songs such as “Keep Your Name”, and Longstreth has mentioned in interviews that the dialogue is deliberately obtuse, insomuch as it’s not clear when he’s speaking as Coffman or himself. Similarly, it’s often difficult to tell if Pecknold is castigating himself or others, but Pecknold's deep capacity for intonation makes me suspect this is a dialogue between halves of a human, and more broadly between competing pieces of an identity. That “myth I made you measure up to” could absolutely be an ex, and yet I’m more inclined to say it’s the self-imposed expectations that accompanied stardom and the assumptions we project on ourselves as we stumble into adulthood. To form a new self, or reach the yolk of being, we have to crack. No wonder the songs are split into pieces, a facet of creation Pecknold admitted in conversation with Uncut was a risk he’d been too insecure to pursue previously.
“Kept Woman” almost feels like a song from the first album, with its scattered references to characters we can’t know and must project meaning onto, though even early Fleet Foxes material kept an air of mystery by casually dropping names in like old acquaintances. Here it’s Anna, but on “Blue Ridge Mountains” it was “Sean, don’t get callous”, a snippet of brotherly wisdom destined to spark imagination. In hindsight I’ve always thought it was a great trick of the writing to introduce these impressionistic elements for the audience to fill and illustrate on their own. Also check that “cinder and smoke” reference. Hard not to think of the 2004 Iron & Wine song of the same name.
Tyler: Right, and we may just be ready to assume that Pecknold is confronting his own legacy with Fleet Foxes on this meta-narrative level because we think that would be cool. But ultimately, some moments could as easily ruminate on the election of Donald Trump as a failed romance – it’s often hard to tell. However, IF WE ARE ON POINT WITH THIS, it would make perfect sense for Pecknold to tease Fleet Foxes’ fourth LP on Instagram a week before their third even comes out, as Crack-Up is a rumination on the past that doesn’t dictate the future: Pecknold is likely eager to look forward.
Andrew: Helplessness Blues, particularly the title track, had that Simon and Garfunkel-esque political folk singer quality, and solo Pecknold would often cover works from folkies like Jackson C. Frank. “Cassius”, for many reasons you have elucidated, is a very political song and has the feel of being carried along in a great river of people, a virtual Arroyo Seco of political outcry. That tie-in extends to “…Memphis”, embracing the tone and applying it to the horrific internal hemorrhaging of the US in the Civil War – Manassas to Appomattox and beyond, referencing Memphis as the ancient capital of Egypt. That nod to Osiris, Egyptian God of the Dead, and the bizarre Yankee Hotel Foxtrot meets Kid A moment of sonic implosion that follows suggests to me a kind of ego-death, a flash of sudden insight so profound it strips Pecknold clean of any further indecision and Fleet Foxes as it was or could have been. The band has played with multi-part structures before, but how do you read them in this context?
Tyler: As Pecknold flipping through a photo album of the past five years. His enlightening Genius annotation for “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” tipped me off to this element of the album, the song serving as a crystallization of Crack-Up’s scope. In particular, Pecknold writes about the instrumental outro: “touring for Helplessness Blues ended in Japan, that period of the band ended there, which is why the last section of the song, Ōdaigahara, is this cloud of dissolved Japanese textures / modes, given the name of a mountain in Japan. Music with no form. The music is now just smoke”. This explanation communicates that each moment of Crack-Up may carry a well of meaning. All these little treasures to collect the further you delve.
Andrew: I keep coming back to that synthesized moment at the beginning of “Cassius”. It almost has a Smog like quality (think: “Spaceship”) in terms of eerie solitude. For a band that began their life making trad-Appalachia music filtered through PNW melancholy such as “Oliver James” or “Meadowlark”, this blast from an alien spaceship hoverbeam gets me every time. It feels like levitating, and recalls the otherworldly (or undersea) moments on “The Shrine / An Argument”. I also remember being impressed and a little put-off on Helplessness Blues by instrumental tracks such as “The Cascades”, but those choices seem even more pronounced here. The cut between “Cassius -" and "- Naiads / Cassadies” may as well be superficial and likely non-existent on vinyl. These passages now seem less like “instrumentals” and instead reflect emotional transformation far more intelligibly, if no less cryptically. The album wields these tiny moments, treasures as well as landmines, with immense precision. The last moments of “Cassadies” are actually an unreleased Pecknold song called “I Let You”, performed live in the months leading up to his breakup with Olivia. It’s an unembellished moment, but one loaded with possibilities that must inevitably seem to have occurred a lifetime ago.
It’s good to see the band still pushing themselves in terms of instrumentation and sound. The shamisen, koto, and auto-harp on “Third of May / Odaigahara” are beautiful, and perfectly capture the emphemeral and far-flung world they’re channeling. Likewise, the momentum build at the end of “Mearcstapa” is a perfect way to capture the energy of the stormy seas Pecknold describes, utilizing an imagined world of geography rich in psychological detail.
I can’t contain myself any longer. I am in love with “On Another Ocean (January / June)”. Water is such a prevalent theme here, and yet it took me forever to catch that the other ocean he’s singing about is so obviously the Atlantic. He even compares himself to a castaway on “Third of May”. The band notes Pecknold posted in the lead-up to the album release include a description stating “fuck this noise”, encapsulating the experience of defining yourself in a new context before a host of strangers. Sometimes that change, that sense of self exploding, goes supernova and blasts out all the insecurity and all of the “lies inside”. The groove on this song is just overwhelming and emotional, and it’s physically brought me to tears a few times when the right combination of time + nostalgia hits.
Tyler: In the physical CD/LP inserts accompanying the Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes’ self-titled LP, Pecknold discusses the immersive qualities of music and how we associate memories with albums and albums with memories, and this new album immerses on a deeply cinematic level. Not to say that Fleet Foxes’ prior work wasn’t immersive, it certainly was, but Crack-Up capsizes Pecknold’s withdrawal, experiences, and ruminations through sharp twists in scenery, conversations, and internal versus external tensions. You can really unearth a new element or meaning with each listen. It’s lush and complex and I find myself consistently in awe going through it.
You sent me that essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald entitled “The Crack-Up”, which REALLY helps to frame this album, at least for the most part. It manages to capture a number of different emotions associated with a simple premise: when confronting the buildup to an inner crisis, much of our preconceived identity (sense of self, values, motivations) splinter off – a “crack-up”. For Fitzgerald this was fostered by a long period of isolation, resulting in a conception of reality that many would call cynical to put it mildly.
Andrew: Fitzy states, “so, since I could no longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years”.
In essence Crack-Up is the emotional, aural, and spiritual extinguishment of that former self. Particularly on the epic, emotional Fleet Foxes history lesson contained within “Third of May / Odaigahara” you can see a whole previous life mapped out and eviscerated by guilt and confusion as Pecknold replays the years of friendship and distance between band-mate and best bud Skyler Skjelset. From one side of the country to the other, and on another ocean, the tides “rising over me” illustrate a submission to nature and ultimate release cultivated by the album as a whole.
Tyler: Pecknold dealt with existential questions on Helplessness Blues, but these apparently resulted in an explosive confrontation with his self. He walked away from incredible success to learn about whatever he could, wherever it led him, similar to Fitzgerald’s months of isolation. That bright glimmer at the end of Crack-Up, and that tiny glob of sunshine on the album cover, suggest that Pecknold’s resulting self, or answer, is decidedly much more comfortable with the whims of the universe and the void’s deafness to life’s big questions.
Andrew: Another Fitzgerald line that really grabbed me was, “a clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist”.
Again, this seems so clear in the album. We’re told a story, and Pecknold even admits on the Genius annotations for “Third of May” that the drop in octave in his voice is meant to represent a great distance from the experience of the moment, almost creating a matryoshka doll of experience akin to enlightenment, or the 3 album cycle. By album's close it seems clear that Pecknold has exorcised whatever remained of the former iteration of Fleet Foxes, and as you state he is likely making way for the next iteration of the band to bloom.
Earlier you mentioned those inserts from the early Fleet Foxes material, and especially the phrase “don’t trust your photographs”. I fell in love with Fleet Foxes the summer before eleventh grade, just after the release of their first album, and that phrase always indicated some deeper kernel of truth from Robin Pecknold that I yearned to fully pick apart. While much of Crack-Up reflects a solitary spirit in emotional diaspora with itself, this is ultimately a hopeful record. The annotations throughout “Third of May” confirm this, at least insomuch as Pecknold develops this wonderful language for describing how time and adulthood have changed him. “I am only owed this shape if I make a line to hold” he sings and elsewhere, while annotating the phrase “fell in line, the third of May”, he wrote “this song / album is the line cast”.
Of course this was coming, Tyler. Have you had a crack-up?
Tyler: Maybe. In the past year I have arrived near a crack-up, or I can closely relate to Fitzgerald’s demons / motivations / processes. He writes that one does not knowingly “crack-up”; rather, it presents itself through retrospect. Writers frequently confront a crack-up using different phrases or analogies, but its fundamental nature is unanimously understood – Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea serving as another touchstone for this topic. And for those who can relate to Fitzgerald’s sentiment that “the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness”, there is a likelihood that this bubbled up within you at some juncture too – especially if that shift followed a crisis wherein you battled some former incarnation of your self.
I’ve always been a meticulous introvert with a melancholic outlook, but all at once this past year, I: finished school, closed the book on a 3-year relationship that could inspire novels, buried a grandmother, lost a structured artistic outlet, lost a structured intellectual outlet, felt and watched myself get old, and ambled aimlessly through dread for stretches of time like I'd not experienced before. This is not to say “woe is me”, many have certainly had worse years and I am willing to bet more individuals around our age experience something similar than would be so willing to admit. Though, for me, it served as the preamble to a crack-up – if one has truly occurred. What I do know is that my period of reflection is similar to that of Pecknold and Fitzgerald in the sense that I spent weeks without emotionally engaging anyone, decided to drastically alter my life and laid the groundwork to do so. Oh, and shaved my head. Oh, and also you and I started this website.
And how about you, Andrew? How is your quarter life crisis going?
Andrew: I’ve been cracking up for a while now, I’ve realized, so consider this the culmination of an embarassement of fractures. I lost my grandfather and father within the span of two years during college and, in hindsight, never stopped working long enough to mourn them. I hiked the Appalachian Trail at 23, walking over 2,000 miles before breaking down in tears in a forest in Maine and gaining the first, faint inkling of what I’d lost. I moved to a city for the first time with the same master-plan I’d kept up my sleeve since I was a teenager, again thinking I had it all figured out. I applied to grad school and got rejected. I found a person I wanted to be with and that slipped away. I wanted and worked and slept and smoked and had to confront, truly, for the first time in my life that sheer force of will can’t control everything. Sometimes will, sometimes believing your own myth, only corrupts. An only child, I’ve spent my whole life like Robin – “just looking out for me”. I always thought, then hoped, loving another person, my person, would bring me out of that shell. In the most bizarre revelation, the kind that only comes when your life spills out in every direction, I feel the most alone and most compassionate towards the world and its inhabitants I have ever felt. I cracked wide open, tears bursting from the seams with the person I felt I was “supposed” to be. What’s left over, what’s left to come when you let go of that shell and finally begin to spread your fingers from across your eyes, well maybe that’s what growing up means. And in a way where you’ll never be the same. But chipped, battered, or broken – you’ve changed. You see yourself on another ocean (and there’s the sound of the tide again, so familiar) while everything that came before flashes in front, behind, ahead, around you. That’s a crack-up. That’s the aftermath of being alive.
And then you stand up, collect yourself, and quietly walk out the door. Maybe that’s how adulthood happens. Two confused twenty-five year old crack-ups miraculously…hatch.
Tyler: If Helplessness Blues now so clearly exemplifies our current state, it appears Crack-Up may foreshadow the years to come.. “So now we are older / than Robin and Skyler / when they wrote “Montezuma” / now what does that say about us?”
Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up will be released on June 16th