“Of course all life is a process of breaking down…”
So begins the F. Scott Fitzgerald essay The Crack-Up, the story of a down-and-out, once successful writer that gave the new Fleet Foxes record, Crack-Up, its name and provided at least a little of its inspiration. It’s easy to see why Robin Pecknold, who put his band Fleet Foxes on hiatus at the peak of their fame, and recently told Pitchfork, “I’ve struggled at times with finding a solid, objective reason to live, or I should say I’ve struggled with the notion of needing an airtight reason,” would relate to such a story. Throughout the band’s exploratory set at the Crystal Ballroom last week, Pecknold and the rest of Fleet Foxes played like people who’ve found that reason.
It seems abundantly clear that Pecknold is very concerned about his art—and existence—remaining vital, personal and original; a living, breathing thing that continuously evolves as he does. He seems truly concerned with the deeper questions plaguing humanity’s existence—as one might imagine a man who walked away from a wildly successful band to study philosophy at Columbia would be.
Crack-Up, out June 16th on Nonesuch Records, is easily the loosest and most experimental record in the Fleet Foxes catalog. Songs feature drastic tempo changes that alter the mood and direction of the tune at the drop of a dime, and multiple times a single track contains two song ideas that bleed into and out of each other. It’s as if a Humpty Dumpty method was employed by Pecknold and company: breaking up (or crack up) song ideas and putting the dismantled parts back together in a different order, creating a new original.
Live the new songs bubble with the same ethos of experimentation and the arrangements are stretched out masterfully by the band. Their jamming, for lack of a better term, has the feel of a controlled burn operated by a fire department: the music feels alive and like it could go anywhere without losing the feeling the people on stage are in complete control throughout. The soothing, melodic nature of much of Fleet Foxes music—and those voices, my lord, those voices—often belies the fact that the band can and does take their music beyond the realms of expectation, playing as five separate moving parts of a unified organism that has Pecknold as its heart. Perhaps it was the being in a room filled with the ghosts of The Grateful Dead, but during the set I more than once had the thought that I’d pay to watch the band simply jam for an hour.
It wasn’t all psychedelic excursions through a psilocybin-filled Pacific Northwest forest though, moments like the gorgeously forlorn “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” bring the record and the live show back down to earth, and will surely soundtrack the death of many a love affair in the coming years. Live, the song was especially enthralling, and in a moment that one could describe as “Portland/Fleet Foxes as fuck,” I heard a group of intently focused young women dressed like Partridge Family Sister Wives sigh audibly in Pecknold’s general direction during the tune, and I wondered if they too were fighting to keep the ghosts of ex-lovers from their minds as I was.
There were a few of the issues you might expect from a band and crew returning to the stage after many years, chief among them muddled sound throughout the show, but to put it plainly: Fleet Foxes is back in every sense of the word, and whether Robin Pecknold is channeling Frances Scott Fitzgerald or some sort of romantically philosphoical Humpty Dumpty, music is all the better for it.