In the six years since Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes principal songwriter and guitarist Robin Pecknold has been thinking really, really hard, trying to come up with new ways to make music. Instead of heading straight into a follow-up album, he’s been pursuing a BA in English at Columbia University, sleeping on the floor of his sixth-floor walk-up, and coming up with new ways to make music. Like walking around the city, singing string parts into his phone. Or writing lyrics that imagine he’s on a sailboat with “two lines in the air/two eyes on the pair,” which could refer to rigging, notes on a staff, poetry, or something else. But more recently, with some maturity and distance, the 31-year-old Pecknold said he was finally ready to resume. The result—Crack-Up—is worth the wait.
On the band’s latest, “Mearcstapa,” which is literally “border walker” in Old English, he’s (a) tuning his guitar to G-A-D-F-A-C, (b) creating a round with the first, second, and fifth notes of the G major scale, (c) playing one rhythm with his thumb and another with his fingers, (d) interweaving melodies and harmonies to capture the feeling of waves on the sea, and (e) simultaneously trying to channel the Beach Boys, Beowulf, Can, the Pointillists, Frank Sinatra, and Ali Farka Toure.
That’s just one song on an album that’s staggeringly ambitious, orders of magnitude more complex and oblique than Fleet Foxes’ first two albums. Crack-Up is a whirl of textures and shifting time signatures, of fragments exploded and reassembled, revealing layer after layer of manipulated autoharp, bass clarinet, bells, cello, glass harmonica, Hammond organ, harpsichord, koto, marimba, Mellotron, shamisen, synths, and vocals, vocals, vocals. Best of all, there are acoustic guitars—classical, dreadnought, or 12-string—at the heart of every piece, no matter how difficult or dense, providing the warm, human center that everything else orbits around. —Kenny Berkowitz
Check out the group’s collage “trailer” for the new album, which does give a sense of the music’s scope somewhat.