Throughout the Fleet Foxes’ discography, frontman Robin Pecknold’s voice and the warm harmonies it’s presented with have always felt comforting. No matter how dark the subject matter or chaotic the music, his sunny-day tenor has always been there as a companion for listeners.
That makes the opening moments on Crack-Up—the band’s first release in six years—extra potent. Pecknold enters with little more than a croak, as if he is singing well below his comfortable range. Accompanied by a meager classical guitar, a barely audible and completely unconvincing statement introduces the album: “I’m all that I need.”
This isolation doesn’t last long. Like a curtain flung wide open, the band’s signature flare of propulsive folk-rock—once again led by Pecknold’s tenor—sweeps in to illuminate the lonesome introduction. The album art depicts a coast with an intense distinction between the dark, jagged shoreline and the cool green of the ocean. This is the mode in which the album works: contrasts.
As in its opening moments, the tone of Crack-Up is likely to change without warning. From stripped-down or messy passages to assured and soaring movements marked by full instrumentation and Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, the entire run time of Crack-Up is a there-and-back-again story from the insular to the communal, from the clamorous to the serene.
Crack-Up’s biggest power is in the jolt; moments like the triumphal entry of “Third Of May/Ōdaigahara” or the transition in the middle of “On Another Ocean (January/July),” the listener doesn’t know just how good the Fleet Foxes’ maximalist blend of sound is until it’s gone. And then here. And then gone again.
There is yet another contrast depicted on the album artwork: past the rocky shore and across the tossing ocean, far out on the horizon, there is a promising golden patch of skyline not yet swallowed by dark clouds. The final song and namesake of the album works up to what sounds like this clearing in the sky; with regal horns and ethereal, swirling vocals, Crack-Up ends with the push-pull pattern finally broken.
Fleet Foxes has created a sprawling and ambitious album that uses both music and words as metaphor to bring to life a narrative of struggle, perseverance, and restoration; a series of contrasts finally made right by one final, transcendent revelation. The last thing the listener hears is footsteps on a stairwell; perhaps that lonely voice in the beginning has had a change of heart. (Nonesuch)