Fleet Foxes' Crack-Up invokes a sonic universe with its own magic

Much has changed since Fleet Foxes' frontman Robin Pecknold took a sabbatical after touring their second album Helplessness Blues in 2011.

He decamped from Seattle to New York to enrol in Columbia University as an English undergraduate, learnt surfing, and opened for indie-folk compatriot Joanna Newsom at her concerts. Meanwhile, bandmate Josh Tillman left the band and reinvented himself as the sardonic social commentator Father John Misty.

In the larger socio-political sphere, the United States changed hands from Mr Barack Obama to Mr Donald Trump, while across the Atlantic pond, suspicion is sown against migrants. All over the world, terrorism haunts.

Any surprise that Pecknold has titled Fleet Foxes' latest album Crack-Up?

To be precise, the reasons he gave are more personal and intellectual. It's named after F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1936 essay of the same name, where the author says "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function".

Pecknold is also referring to his own editing and arrangement process and the initials of his alma mater.



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All this backgrounding may not matter to those who like their music straight-up and uncomplicated and, if so, this record isn't for you.

Compared to their acclaimed 2008 self-titled debut and the 2011 follow-up, Crack-Up is more expansive, delving deeper and venturing further - beyond genre, beyond time. It's still folk, but it's folk as a channel and medium to reach across communities, modern and ancient, to integrate influences (Gnawa music, psychedelia, progfolk) and to start conversations.

Starting with a shape-shifting, three-part suite I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar, the band embarks on a circuitous adventure, akin to Ulysses sailing, in search of hearth and home, wherever that may be, however long it may take.

Pecknold mumbles the lines at the start, "I am all that I need and I'll be, till I'm through", over gently fingerpicked riffs, before the song changes gear into full-on orchestral rock as a stage direction indicates the loner to be kicked off the stage.

He then sings out loud: "And the myth I made you measure up to/It was all just water/winding by you."

The song ends with water splashing, and a quaint recording of school kids humming White Water Hymnal, a track from their first record, released in 2008. Nearly a decade has gone, and is the singer any wiser to finding out who he is, or what he really wants?

These existential questions shade the band's other baffling and bafflingly beautiful songs.

Whether referencing arcane Roman history (two songs Cassius, - and - Naiads, Cassadies) or commenting on the modern state of the Union (Crack-Up), Pecknold and Company invoke a sonic universe with its own logic, much like how film-maker Terrence Malick interrogates and unravels humanity in the context of the world, while embracing the mystery of it all.

"How could it all fall on one day?/Were we too sure of the sun?" Pecknold sings in the stunning strummer If You Need To, Keep Time On Me, over cascading piano keys. What is falling? What is the price of certainty? A hint could be gleaned from the epigraph: January 20th, 2017. It is the date of Mr Trump's inauguration.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Invoking a sonic universe with its own magic'. Print Edition | Subscribe