Long before Mumford and Sons gave bearded banjo bashing a bad name, Fleet Foxes were the self-conscious pin-ups of the new folk scene. However, the acclaim that followed their 2008 debut LP was too much for retiring frontman Robin Pecknold, then all of 22-years old. With follow-up Helplessness Blues cleaving to the cliche of the difficult second album and drummer Josh Tillman leaving to reinvent himself as Father John Misty, the sensitive troubadour plunged into despair and depression.
So he did what any young man in his position would. Trimmed his beard, ditched his lumber-jack shirt and enrolled at Columbia University, where he could be just another earnest post-graduate student with a moochy deportment. On the evidence of the group’s long awaited third LP, it was a worthwhile hiatus, with Peckneold’s songwriting arguably at his sharpest since Fleet Foxes’s first appeared.
That isn’t to say the band have reverted to first principles. Crack-Up — named after an F Scott Fitzgerald essay lamenting the vicissitudes of premature fame — is unabashedly experimental, with tracks rejecting conventional song-structure and instead lose themselves in a fever of humming guitars and swirling harmonies.
The emotional heart of the record is ‘Third Of May / Odaigahara’, a gothic lament in which Pecknold reflects on his stormy relationship with his bandmates and the ways in which they have had to grow up together to keep Fleet Foxes afloat. Elsewhere, the commitment to pushing at boundaries is impressive, never more so than on six minute plus opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar’ — a self-contained song-cycle that pivots from ambient reserve to guitar chugging joyousness.
Fleet Foxes were always divisive –—their music tending to tumble between fantastical and twee. Pecknold and his lieutenants have at last trimmed away their quainter tendencies, and the results are both compelling and impressively emotive.
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