Might as well add Crack-Up to the list of albums whose singles spoil their opening tracks. The album, an epic across space and time, is the first by Fleet Foxes in six years after “artistic differences” led to some form of break-up after 2011’s Helplessness Blues. Crack-Up begins with the whisper of “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” but explodes one minute into the track as “The band kicks the loner off the stage” — according to the liner notes, which are interspersed through songs, drawing a narrative out of the album. Had we not been exposed to “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” “Fool’s Errand” or “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” this explosion would have carried all the weight in the world as the beloved folk rock band from Seattle transitioned from indefinite silence to a grandeur even greater in scale than their first two efforts.
Between Helplessness Blues and Crack-Up, vocalist Robin Pecknold — also the driving creative force of the project — enrolled in literature courses at Columbia University in 2012, a decision he has cited as having a serious effect on not just his music, but his life. His venture into academia is evident on the surface level with references to Beowulf — “Mearcstapa” is named for the legend’s antagonist, Grendel — and Julius Caesar — both in “Cassius” and “I Should See Memphis.”
The album name itself, Crack-Up, comes from an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald of the same name, widely quoted for his idea that one of the greatest marks of intelligence is the ability to engage with and understand both sides of an argument and still function. It’s hard to tell exactly how this plays into the album’s themes, and some may write the album off as a slew of semi-pretentious name-drops, but there is a sense of duality to the album: the city versus the ocean, the individual versus the collective, January versus June, and the homophones “wide/white” and “heedless/heatless” on “Keep Time On Me.”
Still, literary references can’t in and of themselves give a truly creative sense of greater meaning to a new work. Rest assured, Pecknold reaches inward just as often as he does outward. The album’s first single “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is serious self-reflection through time, ultimately a triumphant yet melancholic ode to the passage of time and the loneliness that can come with it. Twice on the song he asks “Was I too slow?” The first time, he then asks “Did you change overnight?” The second time, “Did I change overnight?” Pecknold might be looking for someone to blame, but he seems to realize it may be himself.
The song is also startlingly interwoven in the band’s history. Helplessness Blues was released on May third, so when Pecknold sings “It all fell in line on the third of May / As if it were designed / Painted in sand to be washed away,” it feels like he is acknowledging that the band couldn’t have lasted, or at least not then. May third is also the birthday of Pecknold’s close friend and bandmate Skyler Skjelset, and the line about congregating at “the firing line” is a reference to a painting also named Third of May by Francisco Goya — perhaps further evidence of his return to school or, more likely, a happy coincidence that he stumbled upon the painting outside of his formal studies.
While enrolled at Columbia, Pecknold also took up surfing according to an interview with Rolling Stone. It may be a stretch, but the way he talks about being humbled by the sport in the interview and one quote in particular — “You’re new when you get out of the water” — make it feel like the new hobby has influenced his songwriting. More so than Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues (save for the titular track), Crack-Up juxtaposes the hugeness of nature with the, well, helplessness of humankind. Choices like the aforementioned opening of “I Am All That I Need” and the album’s obsession with the ocean — every song contains some reference to an ocean, sea, flood or tides — lend to this, creating the feeling that the album is just big in a geographical sense.
Since completing the band’s tour in support of Helplessness Blues in 2012, Pecknold has been on a journey through himself and through academia in an unfamiliar city. He has shed his lumberjack look for something cleaner and seems to have given the “capital-q” Questions of his life a lot of thought. The result is an expansive epic, an album that both builds satisfyingly on the legacy left by the first two but also feels like a fresh starting point. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Pecknold is quoted as saying “I’d like to just make another album right now.” If Crack-Up is any indication of what’s to come, we should take as much as we can get.