People think releasing the follow-up to a beloved debut album is difficult. That may very well be true, but it’s nothing compared to making the third record. Think about how many great bands in rock history released a lauded debut album and tweaked their formula slightly to equally satisfying results (the Strokes and Oasis). Then, once it was time to start recording the third album, things went awry. Fighting, drugs, and bigger egos caused the bands to get more ambitious by adding additional guitars, studio wizardry and tracks in general (think, er, yeah the Strokes and Oasis). Indulgent albums have killed, or at least stifled, a lot of great artists in the past, and will no doubt take the careers of more artists in the future.
It’s even more difficult when your first two albums spawned the folk revival of the late 2000s. Just as quickly as they inspired the movement, the group all but abandoned it due to infighting and Josh Tillman’s (a.k.a. Father John Misty) departure, leaving lesser bands like the Head and the Heart and Mumford & Sons to take up the mantle.
Before listening to the first single from Fleet Foxes long-awaited third record Crack-Up, I wondered if they could recapture the magic of their first two albums while avoiding the mistakes so many other bands have made while making their third. That single, “Third of May/Odaigahara,” had all the trappings of the disease of more: a run time of almost nine minutes, multiple movements, and a slash in the name. It is a ballsy first single to put out after a six-year hiatus, but it checked enough boxes to get me excited about the album’s release.
Now that I’ve had time to digest it, I’m happy to report Crack-Up is a triumph. Opening track “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar” starts with Pecknold ruminating in a hushed tone on his time away from the group while gently picking his guitar. The song’s first section creeps along until you are whisked away by an onslaught of chugging strums and gorgeous harmonized vocals. By the time the strings swoop in, it feels like whizzing through a Hayao Miyazaki film on the back of some mythical beast. It also gives you a bird’s eye view of the world Pecknold intends to show you throughout the rest of the record.
Don’t mistake that expanse for indulgence. Though the songs toy with new ideas, no track on the album overstays it’s welcome. Loops and a Minimoog synthesizer reverberate like the rippling water on “Cassius, -“ and the peculiar tuning and disembodied vocals of “Mearcstapa” wouldn’t feel out of place on Radiohead’s Amnesiac.
While I wouldn’t normally recommend Genius.com for dissecting song lyrics, in this instance, it’s necessary. Pecknold enrolled at Columbia University in 2013 and his time in academia appears to have influenced his songwriting. Cassius brushes elbows with Goya and there are enough literary references to fill up your freshmen year creative writing syllabus. Even the title is a reference to a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Those references speak to the broader lyrical feel of Crack-Up when compared to their previous records. Gone are the precious nursery rhymes of the group’s self-titled debut. Crack-Up finds Pecknold diving into his own overwhelmed psyche, looking for answers to the uncertainty not only swirling around his personal life but in the world at large. Unlike Helplessness Blues though, the answers do not seem to be as clear.
Crack Up’s cover, an image taken by Japanese photographer Hiroshi Hamaya, shows the sea at its most daunting. The waves are creeping up the dark, craggily shore while the sea feeds the dark clouds forming above. Water runs throughout much of Crack-Up as well. You are greeted with the sounds of the tide at the album’s opening and at its end. They divide and change the protagonist of the album’s title track. On “Cassius –,” Pecknold compares being in a crowd to being swept up in a stream and “Naiads, Cassadies” is named for the nymph who provides water to all streams, ponds, and rivers. On “On Another Ocean (January/June),” Pecknold even admits to crossing the pond to escape his own troubles. The music on Crack Up carries a lot of the same traits as the element it so often mentions: it’s vast, overwhelming, fluctuating, dark, and achingly beautiful. It is not only the best Fleet Foxes record but one of the best records you will hear all year. So much for the difficult third album.