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Writing about Fleet Foxes means writing about her, so I’ve avoided it for years. Meeting her was the first time I didn’t feel like a mistake in the world. We became friends in college, junior year, the year the first Fleet Foxes album came out. We bonded over music, books, and religion. She was my first love, even if there was no romance. I remember the exact curve of Las Virgenes Canyon where she first put the band on, eyes wide and fierce that I hadn’t heard it yet, gaze darting back and forth from the road to me, gauging my reaction. I would’ve liked anything she played me, but this was different.
“White Winter Hymnal” is lyrical nonsense, so says Robin Pecknold, and I won’t dispute the author, but it’s also not nothing. One child, bundled though he may be, lags behind the pack and falls, bleeding red in the perfect snow, senseless violence in a picturesque scene. A tragedy for no reason, a wound without a moral, just color and action and inevitability. I was following the I was following the I was following the… — the song was meant to be incomplete, a loop without a conclusion. That’s the only way it functioned. He never gets back up. He never dies, either. But there is comfort in the repeating pattern, even if it ends the same way every time. Even if there’s no growth.
I didn’t realize the Pacific Northwest had a culture until I left, and this music was a bridge back home. It sounded like green country and big skies, miracles, and mountains. The song itself feels green, an offshoot of the living, breathing America I’d been sold as a child (perhaps with the help of Paul Simon), a vision of innocence already fading into the confusing black and gold of LA’s gritty shimmer. It was everything I’d believed in before life’s soft, dark underbelly revealed itself — after she left, after Z’s divorce and New York, after God fell apart. But in the late summer of 2008, none of this has happened yet.
Here was a record that felt like living in the future, a song cycle that moved as fantasy novel, effortlessly world-building with the power of Tolkien or Lewis. But it always sounded new, it never sounded old; this was not a throwback to anyone else. When she dropped me off in Malibu, I went to my dorm room and immediately downloaded the entire album, along with anything else I could find by the band on whatever Napster knockoff I used then (Limewire?), campus internet warnings about piracy be damned. This record would fill in as my best friend when she ghosted me a couple months later without explanation. (Was I too slow? Did you change overnight?)
If I think about her too much, even now, I feel like I’m cracking up. Joan Didion says to play it as it lays, so when I came back west I drove the arteries of this city, dear Los Angeles, trying to find our old freeways, trying to find a song to cut my heart back open. I put on “Helplessness Blues” (even though it came later) and I screamed out the lyrics out into the gloaming Santa Ana winds. She was my first best friend, my first attempt at a friend at all, really. More importantly, as time wore on, she was the person who introduced me to Fleet Foxes, and this forever sets her apart. She would love that.
But when she left, the band remained.
What does it mean to have a favorite band? It means all logical reckoning regarding the “quality” of art ceases to exist or make sense. Which doesn’t interfere with my belief that Robin Pecknold is one of the most talented living musicians and composers. It means every song is the best one yet, and the only thing that can compete with the band is the band themselves. It’s a loop of pleasure without breaks. Sometimes a favorite band is a habit, more than anything. Sometimes the music is filling a void. Or maybe always. It can feel like a religion or a relationship. Or both.
In the fall of 2010, after months of keeping it to himself, my older brother finally broke the news to my family that his marriage wasn’t working. Raised in a strict Christian family, for us, divorce wasn’t just an emotional loss, it was a spiritual failure. The pressure was so intense that my brother struggled with severe depression; his sense of grief deepened by shame and perpetuated by the religious beliefs instilled in our childhood. While the rest of us lived on the west coast, he’d moved to New York for graduate school, and was going through this loss completely isolated. Texting our way through the maze of his grief, one of the only bright spots on the horizon was a new album from our favorite band. The title couldn’t have been a more fitting reflection of how we felt. Helplessness Blues.
Looking back, it seems a little strange that two of the most critical losses in my life line up so directly with Fleet Foxes albums, but I have a hard time puzzling how I would’ve gotten through each period without those records. To me, a Fleet Foxes song always sounds like a puzzle. It immediately sounds like a wish. It sounds like choosing to be in love for a single, short snap, and the long fall back to earth as it unravels. As my brother unwound himself from his marriage, and everything felt like a trigger to jolt him back to the past, Helplessness Blues sounded like the future. When the album leaked a full month before it would come out, we were ecstatic in our listening; it was the kind of existential crisis of conscience that we needed. Indisputably, it was a masterpiece, and we kept time on it, even three time zones apart.
Cracks in the face of God had begun to appear, but Fleet Foxes were firmly my favorite band, an identity-defining signifier. Maybe, back then, I moved my religious fervor away from Christianity and toward a band, trading one God for another. All I knew is that God was hurting my brother, but Fleet Foxes were helping. I wasn’t familiar enough with Eminem’s discography at this point in my life to know what a “stan” was, but there is no other vocabulary available to explain the kind of Fleet Foxes fan I became during that time. I was 23, but really, I was just a kid, and I was in a lot of pain. Living alone in the same sleepy college town while all my friends moved on with their lives after graduation — and my older brother fell apart a thousand miles away — my most prized possessions became my car’s CD player, an impending sense of doom about my spiritual beliefs, and my newly-created Twitter account.
After the Helplessness Blues leak, I believe I tweeted about the album — at the Fleet Foxes band account, and Robin himself — every single day. But I was still shocked when one of my passionate, desperate tweets led the band to gift me with a ticket to their sold-out LA show. I was firmly a civilian back then, and certainly didn’t yet know that music journalist was a viable career option. Getting free tickets to see my favorite band, and an acknowledgment of my existence, was easily the most important thing that had ever happened to me and it wasn’t even close. I considered texting my old friend who’d introduced me to the band. But this wasn’t her story, it was mine. I went alone and cry-sang along from the VIP (!) balcony, marking the first time I was brave enough to go to a show alone.
Though he couldn’t fly out to come see the show with me, my brother lived vicariously through my joy. Almost directly after that, I moved to New York, and for the next several years, we built a life and a friendship together in the city, joking about the day we’d retire to our orchard. A band, or a show, or a record is not a frivolous fucking thing, it’s not an accessory or something secondary; music has the power to completely alter someone’s life, to rescue and uplift them during the darkest situations. Music is medicine. That was my first time seeing Fleet Foxes, and up until this weekend, it was my only time at a Fleet Foxes show (even if they were a highlight at Outside Lands, festival sets are never the same.) I’ve been to a million shows since that night, plenty of them in very prestigious circumstances because of work, but no show has ever meant more to me. I doubt any of them ever will.
Nearly a decade into my tenure as a fan, listening to Fleet Foxes feels like listening to my own pulse. It’s every influence from a youth spent combing through anything Dylan touched, backwood folk records, and the stirring crush of young, oceanic rock; it’s the freshness of Springsteen, the brightness of Simon & Garfunkel, the tangle of harmony-packed nobodies all thrust into the spotlight together via Robin’s birdsong tenor. He has a voice like a planet, a glistening white dwarf, or an angry sun; unassailable and always looming off in the far distance, untouchable, but technically, possible. That’s how a new Fleet Foxes record began to feel, to us diehard fans, after a six-year gap. Technically possible.
Fleet Foxes created a sound so singular it launched a whole musical movement, little of which lived up to the quality of the originating band’s output. “That influential LP, full of skyscraping riffs and gospel-steeped harmonies, updated Laurel Canyon rock for the new millennium and helped usher in a folk-rock wave,” writes Jonah Weiner in Rolling Stone of Helplessness Blues’ impact. Pecknold noticed, and he didn’t like it, left the moment to play itself out. When the music world remakes itself in your image, perhaps the best creative option is to remake your image. In that way, Robin and Lorde shared a predicament — how to reinvent their own sound in the wake of a million imitators?
In an interview with NPR Robin cited a quote from Chekhov that guided his last six years: “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.” Much ado has been made about his subsequent foray into woodworking, or time spent studying at Columbia University in New York (his band’s early success prohibited him from attending college during the normal period), or his decision to learn surfing. “You’re new when you get out of the water,” he told Rolling Stone, which pretty much sums it up — he wanted to be a person for a while, not an artist. It’s strange that the critical establishment is so quick produce wry commentary about at an artist living as a human, in water and textbooks and wood, while simultaneously praising those who choose to live so recklessly inside the industry that they never come up for air, working themselves to a pulp. Especially when we’ve seen, time and again this year and beyond, what the latter can lead to.
Perhaps the current critical backlash against the genre he calls home has gaslit Pecknold a bit. He has taken criticism that his work is inaccessible, or not full of straightforward lyrics to heart, going so far as to comment in return on a middling review from Stereogum, even if Pitchfork delivered a glowing co-sign of the band for the fourth straight time. But I like to imagine that Robin Pecknold’s favorite song on Crack-Up is “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me.” It’s the most explicit rendering of his self-described vision of Crack-Up as a Use Object in response to the Stereogum critic’s take, he calls it a balm or a relief, a moment of beauty and wonder in a world riddled with abject horrors. I’m inclined to agree, but then again, that’s always been the purpose of this band in my life.
I have kept time on Fleet Foxes since before he offered. Actually, this band is one the most stable touchstones in my admittedly short life. I’m 29, and I’ve loved them for nine years, which is a third of the time I’ve been alive. I’ve loved them since before I could legally drink, since before I ever smoked a joint or a cigarette. I’ve loved them since before I knew real relationship or heartbreak, though they helped me get through both, of many kinds. I loved them before my brother got divorced, before my dad changed name and gender, before I was a music journalist with a single iota of experience. I’ve depended on the consistency of Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues when everything else in my world crumbled. Crack-Up fulfills all those same purposes and more.
Because, there is something tremendously noble, amid the chaos and transparent power plays of 2017, in a releasing an album that is so wholly and steadily the same. Which is not to say that the album doesn’t represent musical growth and or contain clear progressions for the band, it certainly does. But it is unmistakably a Fleet Foxes record, it so conspicuously bears the fingerprints of Robin Pecknold, that even in newness, it feels familiar. As one of my favorite college professors used to quip, “the joy of recognition is greater than the joy of surprise.” There is joy in meeting Fleet Foxes, once again, on tape. Plenty of us needed this record, and have been uplifted by it. If it was wildly different from the rest, perhaps I would’ve balked. In a world full of horrific uncertainty, the reliability of a song can be grace itself.
On Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl, Robin Pecknold was as powerful as any performer who’s ever played the Bowl’s stage. He was a flash of folk and light and feeling. He was gentleness masked in fury, or maybe the other way around. Whichever it is, he sure as hell won’t say. I’ve seen many, many shows there, but he’s one of the first who seemed to grasp just how historical and momentous that venue is. He’s a demi-god when the song is on, and just a sheepish guitarist when it diminishes. He’ll only sing and smile and blush, often embarrassed, suddenly, when the song is done, like he can’t quite reconcile the persona who can fill a stadium of almost 20,000 with the quiet Seattle kid who sparked a generational movement, and had the sense to leave it while the sound soured like milk in a thousand watered down copycats.
So if there’s any big difference in Crack-Up, it’s that the record is diametrically opposed to the oversimplified pop-folk that has sprung up during the band’s absence. Knotty music theory, difficult time changes, heady, academic language, and fragments and suites of songs assure that this record will be absolutely impossible to replicate. It’s the move, not of a calculated performer, but of a person; it’s a break from the pattern without a loss of consistency. Fleet Foxes were the band that helped me move, through grief, from childhood to adulthood. On Crack-Up, it feels like they’ve grown up in some way, too.
Sometimes, I think the real separation between childhood and adulthood is understanding that failed relationships usually arise from perceiving yourself incorrectly, not the other. Conversely, what I most often seek out to love in others is what I’m desperately looking to love in myself. I thought I hadn’t been able to keep a friendship since her — deep fate shit — all of them cracked up, wobbling under any real pressure. But there’s no pattern here that hasn’t already been settled by my mind itself. I’ve been mid-wifing a nightmare storyline into my life, twisting every inevitable fall until it fit the loop of emotional violence. I was the one driving my own crack-up, I was the one orchestrating my own despair. But I’ve grown now, too, I’m breaking the pattern.
There is nothing objective about my feelings for this band, never will be. I think Crack-Up is magnificent, one of the best albums of the entire year. That is both my professional and personal opinion. Then again, I’ve never really been the kind of critic who pretends those two things are different. Caitlin the critic is still Caitlin the stan; I still love my old best friend, I’m still sister to a grieving brother, now, I’m a music journalist with years of experience, too. I still can’t listen to that first record without thinking of her, and I can’t listen to the second without thinking of my brother’s divorce. So maybe, finally, this third one is mine. It sounds blue and grey, like home. A little too earnest, a little too tender, self-serious without a hint of arrogance, sweet without motive, elegant without ego. In 2008, I thought the music sounded like her. I realize now, it sounds like me.
Crack-Up is out now via Nonesuch Records. Get it here.