"Crack Up" Album Review [and, as it turns out, editorial]
The release of a new album by a favorite band brings with it mixed emotions. There's elation at the prospect of raking over new lyrics, new sounds and new intricacies as the album plays on repeat. But then there's also the terror that after listening to their latest, your favorite band might not be your favorite band anymore... for whatever reason their new work might not touch you the way their old stuff did. You might find them watered down, sold out, or lacking the spirit and luster that caused you to fall for them in the first place.
At the release of Fleet Foxes' new album, "Crack Up," I found myself at this crossroads: hopeful, but prepared to be let down. It only took two tracks to confirm that my reverence for this group wasn't going anywhere.
"Crack Up" wasn't "Helplessness Blues" made over. I didn't admire the album because it mirrored what I had grown to love. There was a maturity to the work. It offered no spoon-feeding of catchy hooks and easily-digested lyrics. Instead, it asked more of the audience. The album begs to be listened to, not passively, but with an attentive ear. There are nuances, subtleties and layers, all of which would be missed without spending time on the album, perusing it, and searching for the purpose within each piece. The album feels like an opening into Robin Pecknold's mind--a mind that doesn't care to express itself explicitly, but instead implores you to find understanding within yourself. The album calls you to do exactly what Pecknold had to do in creating this work.
The hiatus between albums is in part what built up the hype of the new record. It was known that Pecknold had moved to New York, where he started taking classes at Columbia University, but no one could see what was going on inside his head during that time. Until this album.
Both musically and lyrically, "Crack Up" is introspective. It ebbs and flows like the crashing waves of a temperamental mind, or of the ever temperamental movement of time. In the opening track alone, there is a cacophony of emotion--tension and ecstasy course through the track coming to a head each time the competing voices in the narrator's mind crash into each other. The song dialogues the conflicting parts of self, the hopeful and optimistic, with the weary and despairing:
"You've got all you need on me
And now I see that it's all corroding
Soonest seething, soonest folding
But the night won't last if you just hold fast, so calm down
I am hardly made of steel
Tell me, are you so concealed?
Can't I just go to sleep?
You're no more so blind to me"
"I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar" is a fitting start to the album. In it lies a theme that carries its way through the remainder of the record. The album is an exploration of the personal places of the mind, as it acts in desperation to understand an incomprehensible world that promises purpose, but at the turn of a corner steals the very life-giving hope in which we all cling. Just as the mind cannot be stripped down to more comprehensible units, the songs could not be bare-boned simplicity in their expression of this theme. The journey to feel and understand the record mirrors, in ways, Pecknold's own journey as he sought understanding.
The very characteristics that brought me to praise Fleet Foxes last record, are the same that brought down harsh criticisms by Stereogum's Tom Breihan in his "Premature Evaluation: Fleet Foxes Crack Up."
In his review, Breihan seems to pine for the good ol' Fleet Foxes days, when lyrics and composition were more simple and accessible, and hooks like those found in "Helplessness Blues" were "the type of thing where you and your friends might find yourselves singing it into each other’s faces when you’re at a festival together."
Breihan is not shy in expressing his distaste for the album, saying it was more apt to make him "want to take a nap" than want to listen for more. Among his criticisms, is his belief that Pecknold chose introspection in a time when people are yearning to understand the world around them--a time of Brexit, of Trump, of political and social disarray. The last thing people need in a time like this is a Pecknold puzzle.
To end his review, Breihan states the following:
"Maybe Pecknold needed to travel deep within his own head to get back out again, and maybe that’s what we’re hearing now. But where Fleet Foxes used to make anthems, they’ve now given us an album full of puzzles. They’re very pretty puzzles, put together carefully and artfully. But they’re still just fucking puzzles."
Though I respect Breihan's argument, I couldn't disagree more. I depart from his opinion on two grounds: 1. I believe there is absolute necessity and relevancy to an album that is not immediately accessible and understood; an album that requires focused, active attention is precisely what we need 2. Regardless of what an audience "needs," art should not be evaluated on this basis; consideration of audience desires by an artist is the very behavior that can stifle creativity and undermine creative works.
In order to keep my argument here brief, I will first point to Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows, to support my first assertion. With two hundred pages outlining research, studies and observations about the way the internet is changing the human mind, the book serves as a warning sign to current and subsequent generations. With the distracted, disrupted, over stimulated environment encouraged by the web, individuals are devoting less time to sustained attention, and concentrated thought. The more that these patterns of behavior are practiced, the more these neurological pathways are reinforced and strengthened. In essence, our mind's neurological makeup is influenced by the behaviors we choose to practice and the behaviors we fail to maintain. The less time we spend on tasks requiring careful attention, devotion and awareness, the more difficult these practices will become. The pathway to deep thought, thought that leads to creativity and a depth of connection, is the pathway that becomes jilted in the digital age.
We shouldn't ask for "easier" art. We shouldn't ask for lyrics that coddle us, and hand us their meaning. Instead, we should allow ourselves to be immersed in layers of thought and deep thinking, as we seek to understand the world of the artist presented to us in the form of his or her art. Maybe we could use some "serious reassurance" in this turbulent political time, as Breihan contends. But maybe, instead of asking Pecknold to do the heavy lifting for us, we could turn to his music and seek reassurance and understanding ourselves.
That being said, the irony of Breihan's critique is that Pecknold does address political issues and goes far beyond creating an album that is simply for himself. My personal favorite of the album, "Cassius, -" is about the experience Pecknold had participating in the protests after the death of Alton Sterling, a black man who was shot and killed by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In his passing, Sterling left behind a "wife, a son, a son, a son and a daughter," lamented in the song. Pecknold then asks: "Are we also tamed?"
Pecknold points to some of the problems of this age, but he also never promises to know how to fix them. He's not preaching from a pedestal or pretending to have an ordained knowledge the rest of us missing. Instead, he's as puzzled as anyone else, saying himself that the album is more from the "perspective of an observer, or participant, than it is from that of one sent from on high." In "If You Need to, Keep Time on Me," Pecknold's confusion is palpable: "How could it all fall in one day? Were we so sure of the sun?"
Meeting Fleet Foxes' new album where it is may not be as obvious and simple as it had been with their previous works. But the meaning within the record is still there. And the band shouldn't have to apologize for making you work a little bit to find and understand it for yourself.
My second point of disagreement with Breihan's review can be made far more concisely than the first. To put it simply: there is danger in evaluating creativity from the lens of what an audience wants.
To me, the very value of art is found in the vulnerability and transparency of an artist who expresses him or herself honestly. In this act, meaning and purpose become the cathartic byproducts to the artist, fueling the creator with the energy and passion necessary to keep creating and making his or her art. These byproducts of meaning and purpose are the avenues of connection between an artist and an audience. They can't be feigned, they can't be artificially crafted. They must be pure in order for authentic, human connection to take place. The beauty of art is the beauty of this connection. And this connection cannot be made when we are so concerned with audience needs and desires that we are afraid to craft transparently the intricacies and honesties within us. Creating art for the sake of giving an audience what they want, is void of the authenticity that gives art its worth.
Fleet Foxes didn't sing to us this time about a simple life, working in an orchard and dirtying our hands. And as nice as this kind of 'reassurance' may have been in this current political time, it wouldn't have been coming from a place of honesty. Instead, Pecknold's path to understanding himself and the events of the world is no different than the path we each must take. And frankly, the fact that we're all 'fucking puzzled' and figuring it out is the avenue of connection that attached me to Fleet Foxes' new work. That connection is a 'serious reassurance' to me, even if it wasn't the kind Breihan had in mind.
Enjoying and learning from this chapter as the pages turn