THE GRADE B+
BOTTOM LINE The “indie-folk” heroes return, though still conflicted.
Shortly after Fleet Foxes shook up the music industry, with its breakthrough eponymous debut and a Top 5 follow-up “Helplessness Blues” that boosted the growing commercial power of “indie folk” in 2011, the band went on hiatus.
Singer Robin Pecknold stepped out of the spotlight and the burgeoning scene that he and Bon Iver headed up to be followed up the charts by Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers and Fleet Foxes’ former drummer Josh Tillman’s new project Father John Misty. Pecknold enrolled at Columbia University and wanted to cultivate a life outside music.
Six years later, Pecknold has returned to music, reuniting Fleet Foxes for “Crack-Up” (Nonesuch), named after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous essay about finding inspiration after initial success and finding a more workable middle ground in life.
“Crack-Up” carries those values through its 11 ambitious tracks. Often, Pecknold tries to recreate the feeling of holding two conflicting ideas at once in the music. Sometimes, there will be one drum pattern in one ear in the song’s left channel and a different one in the right. Other times, one song will abruptly end and jump into another.
The pretty “Cassius” calls to mind Crosby, Stills and Nash melodies over a complex indie-rock backdrop that unexpectedly switches to the more laid-back “Naiads, Cassadies” with its dreamier, Beach Boys vibe. The first single “Third of May/Odaigahara” also moves swiftly from sweet “Pet Sounds”-era Beach Boys harmonies to a quiet period and then the mix of progressive rock forms and folk melodies that got the band noticed in the first place.
All the complexities make straightforward folk ballads like “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me” stand out all the more. Nothing is ever simple with Fleet Foxes, but all that underlying drama makes a folk ballad like “I Should See Memphis” fascinating and holds “Crack-Up” together.