For a band that’s made a career out of stubbornly resisting the ephemera of contemporary culture, Fleet Foxes have also been uniquely adept at crystallizing the mood of their generation. Released in June 2008, Fleet Foxes’ rustic self-titled debut arrived two months before Barack Obama became the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. In 20 years, when hacky film directors seek musical shorthand for the mix of hope, fear, and earnestness of the Obama 1.0 era, I suspect they will reach for the honeyed harmonies, beatific melodies, and surging dynamics of “Ragged Wood,” “Sun It Rises,” or some other song from that first Fleet Foxes LP.
Much like the folk boom of the Kennedy ’60s, Fleet Foxes epitomized both a youthful idealism about “what really matters” and a reassuring, tradition-oriented Americana that soothed rising anxiety about this country’s waning political and economic power during the George W. Bush years. Fleet Foxes, to many, sounded like a clarion call for a new era. Along with Bon Iver, they inspired a folk boom-let in the late ’00s and early ’10s — some of these bands proved to be better-looking and more popular (Mumford & Sons) or were just generic and malleable enough to function better as pop music (The Lumineers, The Head & The Heart).
But none of them were ever quite as emblematic as Fleet Foxes, who once again tapped into the generational zeitgeist with their second album, 2011’s Helplessness Blues. Whereas Fleet Foxes was the “hope and change” record, Helplessness Blueswas the “disillusionment” record, the inevitable crash after three years of Obama failing to curb a burgeoning sense of national inadequacy. “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see,” sings Robin Pecknold on the title track — was “snowflake” in this context a knowing self-own, or was Pecknold somehow anticipating the go-to liberal-millennial taunt of Trump bots and Fox News blowhards in the years to come?
After the tour for Helplessness Blues concluded in 2012, Fleet Foxes went dark, and the indie gaggle of bearded back-to-the-landers subsequently shaved and started tweeting about the transcendence of Carly Rae Jepsen. That same year, recently departed Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman rechristened himself Father John Misty, and became the new decade’s face of hip folk-rock.
As the years accumulated in the wake of Helplessness Blues, Tillman constructed a persona that in many ways felt like a critique of his former band. This seems plain enough when you listen to the records — Father John Misty songs sometimes resemble Fleet Foxes songs with a caustic social critic cracking snarky jokes over the top of them. But Tillman has also more or less admitted in interviews how the sensitive introspection of Fleet Foxes pushed him toward the bombastic irreverence of the Misty persona, as he told the blog Aquarium Drunkard in 2012: “In a critical, singular, mind-altering moment of clarity, [I] became aware of this giant, blatantly fraudulent contradiction between my internal narrative, my conversational voice, my sense of humor –- and singing about my pain like a fucking decrepit wizard.” I’ll let the reader make their own conclusions about whether Pecknold circa 2011 resembles a Lord Of The Rings character.
On Friday, Fleet Foxes will release their first album in six years, Crack-Up. I’ve had a promotional copy for a few months now, and to my surprise I’ve returned to Crack-Up continually during that time for comfort and solace. At the height of Fleet Foxes evangelism among the indie set nearly a decade (!) ago, I was a resolute agnostic, for reasons I can’t quite recall. Perhaps I was sensitive about being typecast — I am, after all, a hirsute white male who really likes the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, which by default makes me painfully self-conscious about my demographic group’s cultural identity. (Robin Pecknold is also afflicted with this problem.) Or maybe I was over-reacting, unfairly, to all of the squeaky-clean folk-rock groups that followed in Fleet Foxes’ wake.
Certainly, my objections to Fleet Foxes’ impossibly beautiful hymns weren’t completely unfounded — those songs on Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues are pretty callow, lyrically speaking. (Another quote from Helplessness Blues‘ title track: “If I had an orchard, I’d work ’til I’m sore / And you would wait tables and soon run the store.”) But I’ve forgiven far worse from artists who make far less stirring music. (“Teach Your Children” and “Our House” are at least as treacle-y as any Fleet Foxes song.) As Crack-Up became a staple of my recent listening, I found myself finally coming around on the older Fleet Foxes records, too.
You get the sense that Pecknold might’ve had to come back around on Fleet Foxes, too. He has spent the last several years living a “preppy” life in New York, studying literature at Columbia University and (according to a recent Rolling Stone profile) absolutely not listening to Father John Misty albums. During that time, Pecknold has said, he had to rediscover his own utility as a singer-songwriter. (“The record is about me going from being a solitary person, to reentering the band, reentering old relationships,” Pecknold told Pitchfork.) The belated appearance of Crack-Up indicates that Peknold successfully recovered his muse, though I wonder if he doesn’t fully understand his own strengths.
It seems like certain adjustments were made to make Crack-Up seem slightly less Fleet Foxes-like. For instance, on paper at least, the songs are “smarter.” There are enough historical references and literary allusions tucked inside the lyrics of Crack-Up to add up to a lengthy syllabus — the album title derives from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, the dreamy “Mearcstapa” is named after a character from Beowulf, “Cassius” makes a weirdly topical nod to Julius Caesar’s assassin.
Musically, Crack-Up is as convoluted in places as a Mars Volta record, showcasing multi-part suites with unpronounceable names like the jaw-dropping “Third Of May/Odiagahara,” in which a positively beaming, classic-sounding Fleet Foxes chorus slowly devolves into a vaguely dissonant psych-folk soundscape. The brassy brightness of the band’s harmonies, and the choirboy sweetness of Pecknold’s tenor, are parceled out a little less generously this time around. Pecknold either exhibits restraint, like on the affecting baroque ballad “Kept Woman,” or takes his time working himself up out of an early-morning croak, like on the otherwordly “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar.”
While Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues are, for good or ill, utterly guileless albums that do little to conceal what one might find appealing about them, Crack-Up appears to have been conceived as a “grower” record that will reveal more of itself over time. So is it wrong that what I like most about Crack-Up is how pretty and shiny its surface is? Once again, a new Fleet Foxes LP seems well-timed, given how hard “pretty” is to come by these days. It feels like a necessary respite.
My favorite song on the record is the simplest and most plaintive — even the title, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” is warm and consoling, like a long-lost acquaintance offering a hug, even to a guy like me who had no use for him back in the day. When I listen to this song, I wonder: Am I hearing Fleet Foxes, or my own Obama-era nostalgia? Either way, it’s a sound that no longer evokes naive aspirations, but rather the irrevocable loss of that precious naiveté.
Crack-Up is out this Friday, 6/16. Get it here.