"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.
The Artist. Alex Izenberg.
The darkness has taken over me
Once I see her engagement ring
Alex Izenberg's "Grace" may be one of his most accessible tracks. Piano chords roll under a desperate voice, as strings add a level of sentimentality, coloring the pain in soft hues.
Contrast this with his song "To Move On," and the tone immediately changes. Still recounting a lost love, this track has its softer moments, but is predominantly cheerful, mirroring his perception of his ex-lovers carefree manner of moving on without him.
You don't know what it's like to have to move on
She started dancing to that fine, fine music
It's true, love
You don't know what it's like to have to move on
From a name you despise
It's true, love
Izenberg's album, "Harlequin" is experimental without totally breaching approachability. His unorthodox style shades each track, feeling largely inventive, rather than forcibly avant-garde. For an album promising to move outside what's standard, Izenberg's last release is worth the listen.
Blue skies replace the usual grey. Streaks of red flash as buses pass by the window. Perhaps it would feel more typical London were I to be sipping tea instead of a cappuccino. But I've always been a coffee girl, and that much hasn't changed.
As I eat a bite of banana bread off a delicately patterned floral plate, I peer across the street at people bustling about. They stream from both sides, passing telephone booths, a pub, and window sills adorned with pink and purple flowers. It seems right enough.
Cities are curious in the way they each seem to have such distinctive personalities.
London to me is a contrary old man, stubborn enough about his ways, but quite the charmer when he wants to be. He never pretends to offer more than he has and can admittedly be a bit dreary at times. Catch him at the right time though and it's a different story entirely. You can look past his stubborn and tedious temperament to see his value. He may come across as aloof and indifferent, not seeming to care about you and how you're feeling, but sometimes this indifference is precisely what you need. Feeling small in a city forces you to draw from yourself a way to feel bigger. There's no dependence on affirmation, and London certainly doesn't care to validate you based on the image of yourself you've been trying so hard to sell. There's a certain loss of vanity that comes from a city that doesn't care who you are, who you've worked with or where you've been. His indifference creates a level playing field and a loosening on an obsession to impress—a loosening that allows you to start doing things simply, and completely, just for yourself.
He may not go out of his way to make you feel secure, but strike up the right conversations, and he will meet you where you are.
He'll find you in a cosy little shop where you ducked in to avoid the rain. He'll keep you company as you write there for hours. He'll engage your conversation about the blues bar you love. He'll introduce you to people burning with passion—people who care to make a stand as they attempt to make a difference in this world. He'll talk music, he'll talk film, he'll talk literature, he'll talk politics. And each conversation will bring with it bits of perspective and bits of growth. You can complain about his expensive tastes, but he'll probably simply shrug and push his glasses back. He's old and stubborn after all. And stubborn or not, you're grateful for his company.
After coming into contact with the personalities of many cities over the years, London's character is one I've grown to really appreciate. Under the umbrella of this city's seeming indifference to me, I came to more fully embrace who I am and what I want. Despite my seeming insignificance as I join the sea of people flooding onto the underground everyday, there's still the significance that's created in pursuing the things that add value to my life. And there's still the significance of the people, places and experiences that have pulled me through and colored the days of my passing time.
As I push in my chair and leave my cappuccino cup behind, I know I'll be back, perhaps to write again tomorrow. It's a typical day in London and though my time in this city got off to a bit of a bumpy start, I couldn't be happier to have met this old man.
The Song. "City Lights," The White Stripes
"Will you dig a tunnel to me?"
Released in September of last year, this song was written for the "Get Behind Me Satan" album. It's a shame it didn't make the cut, but there's comfort in it making its way to our ears now, eight years since the White Stripe's last formal release. Simple and soothing, the light guitar picking and minimal instrumentation glide under Jack White's distinctive vocals and carry the listener through the song. The music video is also worth a watch. Michel Gondry's unassuming visual work makes for the perfect pairing.
The Artist. Julien Baker
"And I just let the parking lot swallow me up
Choking your tires, and kicking up dust
Asking aloud why you're leaving
But the pavement won't answer me"
Authenticity. Rare to find at times, but when it's there, it can almost be tangibly felt.
I feel it in the words and notes that spill onto each track of Julien Baker's "Sprained Ankle." Each song is stripped down, with only her electric guitar, silvery voice and candid writing to fill the space. There's pain, sincerity, yearning, and even, surrender, as she pours herself in to the nine songs on the record.
I felt her authenticity far before I confirmed it. I normally don't give a detailed account of an artists background when writing of songs or artists I've come to enjoy, but for her, it brings an even deeper level and meaning to her work. After reading through her interviews and watching her performances online, there really is no doubt left in mind: the piercing beauty of her honest craft is as authentic as it gets.
Baker is 21 year old from Memphis, Tennessee, living in the heart of what's consider the Bible Belt of the United States. She had no real intentions of becoming a recognized artist, and was instead studying literature with an emphasis on secondary education when she recorded "Sprained Ankle" with a friend from her college's audio engineering program. There were no expectations and it was never a consideration to create tracks that would sell. I believe this is one reason her honesty shines through.
She was honest about her pain: pain after a break up, pain after years of destructive behavior, and pain in her search to find God and reconcile what it means to be a southern Christian woman who identifies as a lesbian. She doesn't hold back. It's honesty you can feel. And it's honesty that drives through to the heart of the listener.
An unfeigned, transparent creation by a talented artist, "Sprained Ankle" is truly a work of art.
I stepped outside into bright light. It was a welcomed greeting for a London winter. Not a cloud was in the sky, and the only visible condensation was my breath as it floated before me. Sunlight bounced off the perpetually damp streets and my face felt warm in the rays despite the brisk air. It was 10am and a half moon still hung above the buildings, stubborn and not ready to disappear for the day. An airplane made a clean streak in the clear sky.
On this same clear, bright day, sitting at my favorite café with a good friend, I watched the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States—a man whose rhetoric has pointed toward hate, intolerance, and a blind disregard for marginalized groups or interests other than his own. Incongruence at its finest.
Today, I was greeted by another sunny London morning. This time though, instead of watching an “America first” speech in the hours to follow, I watched thousands of men, women and children march through the streets toward Trafalgar square.
I am not naïve enough to think the simple act of walking equates to tangible change. But I would be lying if I said that seeing such large numbers moved to action was not a comfort. Across the world, thousands are disturbed by the wave of self-interested patriotism searing through the political sphere. From Brexit, to Trump, to Marine Le Pen “hailing patriotism as the policy of the future,” the influence is undeniable.
Though this ideology is troubling on many levels, perhaps most concerning is the associated hate rhetoric and the turning a blind eye to issues that should not be ignored. It doesn’t matter if problems with racism, sexism, acceptance of the LBGT community, aid for refugees, and concern for the environmental well-being of our planet are inconvenient—they still must be addressed.
Blind patriotism isn’t the answer. But, neither is a simple march. The marches of today showed that there are numbers. There are people who are upset, disturbed, concerned. But sheer numbers do nothing. It is only the mobility of these numbers that equate to change.
My hope is that all who marched today will not simply return to life as usual. Brexit and Trump, for the time being, cannot be reversed. But there are still small individual actions that can lead to tangible results. For me, I know I can’t keep talking about my concern with what is happening in Syria, and never do anything about it. I have to get actively involved. Whatever it is that bothers us, whatever it is that got us out to march, it is that which we should act upon. It is that which we should fight to change.
The women’s march today was for more than just women. It was for the deep seeded problems we are frightened to watch grow—problems of negligence and problems of hate. We cannot sit back and idly watch it all unfold. It’s easy to become disillusioned, but there are still bright days to look forward to, even in a spell of grey. That, at least, is the small hope I hold it. That, at least, is the reason I fight on.
The first time I came to London, I felt that I needed it: needed to get away, needed to be somewhere new, and needed a city to breathe life back into me.
I came back from London a month later refueled, but feeling I needed more time: more time to grow, more time to expand... more time to be away.
And so off to Italy I went, where I did grow and I did expand.
For a while, traveling was an escape of sorts for me. But, when I started preparing for London this summer, I wasn't viewing London as a coming escape. This go around, it was a challenge, rather than something I expected to be my saving grace.
I am more than excited for my time here and I can already tell that I will leave this city, having fallen for all of its wonderful subtleties. I can also tell that the people I meet here and the relationships that unfold will be beautiful and have irrevocable value.
But that doesn't mean the transition has been easy.
As I prepared to leave Nashville, I didn't feel the need to leave anything behind. In fact, I was leaving a place that after four years had really begun to feel like home. I have relationships there I wouldn't trade for the world: people I care for immensely and invest in, and so many people willing to do the same for me. I have my spots there: my favorite little nooks and atmospheres, places that feel, in part, like my own.
I found myself landing in London a week ago feeling a dizzying cocktail of emotion. I was excited, sentimental, enthralled and anxious.
At first, I was rather annoyed with my own sentimentality. But now I'm realizing it's quite okay. I should honestly be thrilled to be a little sentimental. It just means that I fully understand and appreciate what was left behind while I'm away.
And now I have the opportunity to make the most of the coming twelve months.
The culture and art scene within London is one I cannot wait to explore. I have a small laundry list of the places I would like to see and all of the things I would like to do. And with each new relationship I make here, comes the opportunity of learning new perspectives--especially when considering the wide array of international students at my university. And what's more (the real reason I'm here to begin with), I can already tell that I will love my classes. Although it's early, I can still see their application within the field of journalism and publication. I'm already excited thinking on how this year will hopefully bring me one step closer to having a career I'm really passionate about.
Looking forward, looking back and simply enjoying the now seems to be a fine thing to do.
It'll be nice to look back on this year, feeling sentimental once again: fully understanding and appreciating what I had during my time in London. And I think it's fine now that I'm in a sentimental mood.
The city lights pushed through the haze in the distance and the mountains’ shadows loomed just beyond.
I’d forgotten how far away the stars could appear. And just how small they could make me feel.
I found myself on the roof of the guest house where I'd been staying for the past two weeks.
My head was racked with more than I could really process, so I tucked headphones into my ears and just lay there, taking in all that surrounded.
Everything’s so much bigger than me—the sky, the world, the problems of this country and the problem of not knowing my place in it all. In the grand scope of things, in the entirety of my smallness against the world’s immensity, how can I really expect to have a place, a small hole designed for me to fill?
The wind that blew through the mango trees beside me and cooled my body as I lay there seemed to be the only thing that could bring me down and out of my own head. The breeze felt the way I imagine God's hand might feel if he was easing me back to the present.
In that moment, I found a sliver of understanding in my sea of unresolve as I noticed a line that played in my ears—a line I’ve heard a million times, resting inside one of my favorite songs.
“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I think I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
The song reminded me of something I've known to be true:I want to serve a greater purpose. I’ll never be bigger than the problems I come into contact with, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a small part in something bigger than myself.
There’s no blinking sign, telling me just what to do to fill that role, but I have a strong feeling I’ll find it.
Here in Haiti, I’ve felt entirely alive. I’m alive when I take a picture that I hope brings both me and maybe another closer to understanding a culture outside our own. I’m alive when I write the stories of these people and the lessons they’re teaching me. I’m alive when I play with kids who speak a different language, yet we're still able to connect. I’m alive when I interact with people in this country pushing towards hope, compassion, peace and change—people who inspire me to do the same.
There's no therapy quite like being under a sky full of stars. In the moments when I feel entirely small, I'm reminded I want to be a part of something bigger.
“But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be. I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see.”
The people and culture here are difficult to understand. A city of contradictions. Both people and place are wrecked yet withstanding.
I look into the streets and see a people willing to do anything it takes to make ends meet: their resiliency captivating and inspiring me. Yet, talk to some of the people here and there's a different story. One man speaks of all the men he's seen who've all but given up, playing cards and begging to pass time, letting the rest of the family fend for themselves.
Another, Peter, seems to say the same. Then he tells me there's quite a lot people of Haiti can learn from the woman before us, Jocelyn.
A red couch cushion supports her back. Her legs are tucked underneath her, wrapped within the black material of her dress. Sweat sits on her brow, but she never slows from her work to wipe it. White dust from bags powder her bare feet. Feet that can no longer carry her. She's been paralyzed now for well over ten years.
She dismantles strands from empty rice sacks to weave into rope. She has her own little process. A large fistful of individual strands tied together at the top, making a tail of sorts. Three tails then braided together to make the rope. She clenches the end of the rope between her teeth for better leverage as she wraps the cords tightly. She moves deliberately, meticulously.
I've spent the last hour watching her work, diligently weaving her rope as Peter translates my questions and her answers to each of us, back and forth. She tells me that for her, this passes time. Making rope that will sell for less than a dollar each helps her forget.
There's no sense of resentment with Jocelyn, no broken spirit or bitterness pervading her being. She chooses to be joyful.
"There are people worse than me," she tells me. "If I can do this, it is a grace from God and I am happy."
After I finish speaking with her, Peter talks with me further, speaking of the garden she keeps, the life that she's made for herself: the resourcefulness, persistence and joy of this woman. To him, she is in stark contrast to others in this city.
Though Peter seems quick to, I could never call the people of Haiti lazy.
I see the circumstances: the brutal cycles of poverty, corruption and brokenness. Slivers of hope they cling to would likely slip through my fingers. Who's to say I wouldn't give up?
If there's one thing I've learned here, it's that no situation can be judged.
I could quickly condemn the orphanage mother who lets children starve to death for the sake of a few who can now go to school. I could quickly retort that I would never let a child starve and become a living sacrifice for the chosen few I want to get an education.
But Haitians use their resources in ways that may seem foolish, removed from their situation. Reality in Haiti is often full of contradictions- death to a few in order to bring hope and life to a handful.
It's hard to say if Port-au-Prince is beautiful or desolate, lazy or resilient, hopeless or hopeful. The good and bad here seem caught in some grand dance.
But, when I see a woman like Jocelyn, hope gleaming in her eyes, I can't help but feel the potential that lives within this city.
Your strength becomes mine
I forgot I had it in me
Yet I feel myself fill up
I feel myself reminded
You are strong
You are beautiful
The world will never get you down
Yet I so easily fumble
I was handed life so easily
While you were given nothing
No life is void of suffering
You know that all too well
I have my pains
You have yours
But the world will never get you down
Why do I so easily fumble?
Maybe your air is a facade
Maybe your strength is only feigned
Maybe I shouldn’t thank you for your front
But I do
It reminds me of the strength we each hope we might possess
And I thank you for that, I simply have to
For the world will never get you down
I hope that I won't be so quick to fumble
The Haitian airport was just as chaotic as I expected. Men impatiently crowed around the baggage claim, hoping their fingers might land on someone’s bag who was willing to accept help—someone who could spare a few dollars in exchange for helping the bag out to the car. When so many Haitians only make $300 a year, you can understand why every dollar counts.
In the city, trash is everywhere. No space is safe from its presence. Plastic bottles push through the overgrown grass. Gutters are a river of garbage, with brown stained water snaking its way through the crevices between aluminum and plastic. People tip toe around the mounds of shredded garments and the waste that sprinkle the pathway. Men balance baskets on their heads with even more bottles resting inside—bottles that are likely to join the litter on the streets.
Walls too are everywhere. A walled city with walled neighborhoods and walled homes beyond that. Guards and dogs and barbed wire all meant for protection. Safety has left its ideal form, but to the people, it’s protection none the less.
Walls and trash. I realize that I haven’t painted an alluring picture of the city at all. But the highlights are only as valuable when the lowlights stand beside them: a beautiful contrast that shows the city for both all that it is and isn’t.
As I passed yet another mound of litter from the back of the rickety bus that carried me to the compound, the image before me was not one of desolation. A single, black flip flop poked through the trash. Behind it, a girl was walking just beyond the garbage. She looked strong, beautiful and perfectly at peace with the place around her.
There’s an embrace of simplicity and an acceptance of life in its beauties and shortcomings that exists. Beauty created in its juxtaposition with the mess. Bright, vibrant walls standing out against the barbed wire that decorates them. Bright, vibrant people standing out in the environment of pollution and litter that surrounds.
The city is fiercely alive with its people—a people of strength. They don’t seem broken or worn down. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. There’s a sense of pride and a soft resilience hidden in the crease of a smile. They are the people of Port-au-Prince: a beautiful mess of a city.
Enjoying and learning from this chapter as the pages turn