Coming out of a long hiatus following the release of 2011’s Helplessness Blues, folk outfit Fleet Foxes have finally returned with their third full length studio album. Crack-Up is a sprawling folk odyssey, songs gliding into one another amidst walls of sound unparalleled in folk music. It’s ambient and Americana come together, almost a sort of folksy post-rock piece, driven by the textures and layers emanating from the vast array of instruments as much as by vocal performances or by chord progression. In many ways, Crack-Up is a clear continuation of everything Fleet Foxes were doing back on Helplessness Blues; but it’s easy to see that they’re doing everything different now too.
From start to finish, the album’s very open, perhaps live-esque sound, is so obviously apparent. Tracks like the opener I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar and Kept Woman are laden in subtle washes of reverb, providing a certain closeness and an eerie echo to these already haunting moments. Pecknold’s vocals take on a choral form, sometimes even almost a gospel or hymnal style sound just in themselves, floating far above yet simultaneously so intertwined with the lush instrumentation beneath. Every piece of the band’s puzzle is inseparable on Crack-Up – even sparser cuts like If You Need To, Keep Time On Me, rely on those dichotomies between the richness of the band’s background playing and Pecknold’s ethereal vocal performances as frontman.
But Fleet Foxes’ best moments on this project are when they’ve built up a serious level of momentum, where every piece is somehow locked in yet seemingly bouncing off of one another. Lead single Third of May / Ōdaigahara shines in this regard, starting easygoing but slowly swelling and building as swathes of new instruments join the fray – guitars cascade and dance over drum rhythms that are all but completely swallowed up in the mix. There’s no such thing as a dull moment, or any sort of unintended gap or silence in the wall of sound either. Everything is so carefully calculated, with string sections, harpsichords, autoharps, or some other sort of musical paraphernalia filling in the dead air – but ultimately, the result is satisfying and fulfilling.
Crack-Up is an album that knows how to balance it’s ups and downs too. The soundscape that Fleet Foxes has cultivated is so well timed, and well balanced, that the band seems to evoke a sound more akin to post-rock projects than to their more traditional folk or baroque pop. An organ breakdown on Cassius, the glossy plucks on Kept Woman, the light pianos of On Another Ocean (January / June) – these are just some of the albums most ambient and beautifully light moments. But for every one of these moments, there’s a powerful, gripping, and endlessly tense one – swaying strings and lush horns on Mearcstapa’s country classical conclusion, or those walls of grand brass that bring together finale and title track Crack-Up. In every way, Crack-Up is an album about texture and timbre more than anything else.
For one of folk music’s most celebrated modern performers, it’s endlessly exciting to see them explore new ideas and expressive avenues for their musical creativity. Crack-Up is one of folk music’s most evocative forays into the idea of sound – by subverting traditional expectations, Fleet Foxes have created an album wholly preoccupied with walls of sound and experimentation with texture and sonic palettes.