It's been six years since locally grown band Fleet Foxes, led by songwriter and vocalist Robin Pecknold, released their deft sophomore record, Helplessness Blues.
The follow-up to their self-titled debut, Helplessness Blues did what so many second records fail to do—outperformed its extremely well-received predecessor. It was a stunning maturation of sound, grappling less with bucolic imagery and golden harmony, and diving instead into ornate composition and themes of loss and aging as its singer hurtled through his 20s.
So now I am older
Than my mother and father
When they had their daughter.
Now what does that say about me?
It was dark and twisting, eminently listenable but also challenging as it tumbled through sprawling eight-minute epics ("The Shrine/An Argument") and simple, sweet melodies ("Someone You'd Admire").
And yet. When I would ask people in the Northwest about Fleet Foxes, I was met with responses ranging from "Oh my god they suck" to "I used to like them, but they're so derivative."
One friend told me they were "like Band of Horses but bad." I could probably write a dissertation trying to figure out what that sentence even means, but I have a life to live.
The Northwest, like many regional music scenes, tends to kill its darlings. It's a common indie-music trope, and it would be easy to say that the backlash against Fleet Foxes (on the internet and in conversation) is because of this mentality—they got too popular, too big. They outgrew their hometown quickly. They were too easy to like, and lost their credibility that way.
From about 2008 to 2011, the last time Fleet Foxes were active, Americana was the reverb-laden sound of the alternative world. Upcoming bands included the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and local five-piece the Head and the Heart. There was harmony in thirds, there were claps, and there was ample kick drum. There was a hazy wash on everything, and the whole thing reeked of nostalgia so strong, you could practically smell the mustache wax and artisan leather.
Aesthetically, Fleet Foxes fit in. Pecknold's voice filters through what sounds like a tunnel in the woods, with enough acoustic swells to overturn a boat. When the Americana fatigue set in after a few years of hallelujahs and wishing for those good-ol' days on the family farm and at campfire revivals, it only made sense that Fleet Foxes got lumped in.
I attribute this to the way we listen to music now, the way we receive art. Art has teetered into the realm of content rather than something to be absorbed over time or to be experienced. We are not encouraged to spend time with art or return to it. We are encouraged to compare it to what we see around us, and when the next thing comes up, to disregard what came before and move along.
It has been six years now, and the airwaves are still cluttered with hey-hos and men in suspenders, but the fervor has died. Pecknold went to college, scored an off-Broadway play, and quietly worked on a third record and some solo material.
We forgot. The internet forums quieted.
So now it is time to do what we are often not encouraged to do, and look at an artist's breadth of work. Which I have done, over and over again these last six years, and now, in tandem with listening to new album Crack-Up (out June 16 on Nonesuch Records), I would just like to tell you that you can all get over it—Fleet Foxes are a great band.
A Reddit user pointed out that the last track on Helplessness Blues, "Grown Ocean," ends feeling unfinished. He posited that the beginning of Crack-Up would open with the missing chord, what he guessed would be an F. Pecknold hopped on Reddit and confirmed that's exactly what would happen.
As was forecasted, the first track on Crack-Up opens with that long-awaited F chord and quietly resolves the grand questions that were left unanswered on Helplessness Blues.
Crack-Up shakes off the self-focus of Helplessness Blues to describe a world you wake up to when you come to terms with your own fallibility. It skews toward the nuanced—from friendships to loss to the dissolution of a false sense of security. Pecknold struggles to finally see the world for what it is and not what he imagined it to be. He struggles to maintain and rebalance.
It begins dark, with jarring twists that pull you from a single acoustic guitar and Pecknold's meditative solitude to crashing passages and a frenzy of uncertainty. When we last heard Pecknold, he was trying to find his place in a grander plan, capping every fear and bit of pain with a faint sparkle of optimism.
That optimism is harder to get to on Crack-Up, but it does come. As the album twists through epic orchestration and songs not usually under four minutes, you start to hear the break.
But it's not the golden hope we had in 2008, or even the more subtle promise we heard in 2011. It is almost entirely saved for the end, when instead of a sunray, you feel the claustrophobia of this long-sought complacency break in a sudden breath of fresh air. And as the album fades out on the title track, it capitalizes on the uptick in mood in the shift to a succession of major chords. But when it stops, you wait for the next track to rise up like the sun.
Instead, the album ends, feeling like a cliffhanger.
Which is most likely exactly what Pecknold wants—an epic trilogy that ties together like a banner in the wind, a ragged line torn from relics collected during the hard-won act of growing up.
WHICH IS FUCKING INCREDIBLE, SO WHY WOULD YOU CALL A BAND THAT DOES THAT BORING?
Fleet Foxes have never marketed nostalgia. Instead, they have firmly planted their feet and looked forward, embracing their own evolution and stubbornly shaking the desire for an easy resolution. They may have the shimmer of Americana, but as those bands either adapt away from or fade quietly into the backdrop of dying golden age American idealism, Fleet Foxes add to a catalog that stands on its own, placing one foot in front of the other, untouched by the hurry.
If you can't be bothered to sit down and hear that, I just don't know what to do with you.