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Review: "Crack-Up" by Fleet Foxes

Musically speaking, middle school was a very cringy time for me. Aside from some questionable hair and fashion choices, bands like Slipknot and Brokencyde found themselves endlessly repeated through my angsty teenage mind. In fact, I recently came upon an old iPod from that time, containing far more Weird Al Yankovic songs than I care to admit. Yet, despite my unhealthy nu-metal obsession, I managed to come across a band that, without exaggeration, changed my life. Fleet Foxes. 

It was in an Old Navy on a hot April day in 2011. Amid the chit-chatter of soccer moms scrambling for some $5 bathing suit, the light sound of acoustic guitars and harmonic vocals percolated through. Without thinking, I immediately pulled out my phone to Shazam the track, convinced I would never hear it again if I did not. After yelling at some poor lady to keep quiet, there it was on my screen: “Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes”. Almost instantly, Brokencyde didn’t seem so cool anymore.

Six years since that fateful day, I have eagerly anticipated the release of their next record. As the years waned on, I worried that that record would never come, and I would be stuck with just one perfect album. Thankfully, Robin Pecknold & company have come through, dropping the group’s third full-length, Crack-Up. Prior to listening to it, a nervous apprehension washed over me. With two amazing albums already under their belt, the band faced enormous pressure going into this latest release. Would this album live up to six years worth of expectations or fall flat on its face?

In the end, Fleet Foxes have managed to exceed all expectations, while doing so in completely unexpected ways. Helplessness Blues, as cohesive as it was, contained songs so strong, each could stand on their own apart from the others. Crack-Up, on the other hand, has a much more synthesized structure, essentially making the album seem like one big song. The tone and inspirations of the album are also much more dark and damaged.

Lead singer and guitarist Robin Pecknold confirmed that the 1936 F. Scott Fitzgerald essay “The Crack-Up” served as the title and thematic basis of the album. In the essay, the famed author describes how the human condition is seeing “that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise”. Likewise, every song on Crack-Up, no matter the story it tells, revolves around this theme, to persevere with life despite the knowledge of how horrible it can be.

This mindset can be seen on the bipolar opener “I Am All That I Need”, which juxtaposes quiet, barely audible whispers with abrasively melodic chants and guitars. A sense of urgency infects the atmosphere, displaying the frenetic nature the mind can take. Much like the Fitzgerald essay, the song is an exploration into the human mind at a time of loneliness and confusion. The heaviness of the track is unlike Fleet Foxes have ever released before. The instrumentation, while hauntingly beautiful, plays with a fervor that bangs on the walls of the universe until they shatter.

In the past, Fleet Foxes have never really dipped their toes into political waters before. And yet, that is exactly what they do on “Cassius”, addressing the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, as well as tackling the problem of police brutality as a whole. The song is named after Muhammad Ali (birth name Cassius Clay), who died a month before the shooting of Alton Sterling. Amid lines of “useless sirens” and “guns for hire”, Pecknold sings probably the most troubling verse of the album:


“Cassius, one month gone on his way

And who will lead us

And who remains to die?”


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This song not only criticizes, but also mourns. When Muhammad Ali passed away, many viewed it as the passing of boxing’s greatest legend. While that is true, many others, including Fleet Foxes, view his death as the passing of a major fighter for African-American rights. The song ponders on who will take his place in the never ending struggle for civil rights.

Without a doubt, the best track off Crack-Up, as well as a candidate for song of the year, would have to be “Third of May/Odaigahara”. This was the epic track I expected from a Fleet Foxes album, and it manages to set itself apart. Nearing nine minutes in length, “Third of May” flies by in a fraction of that time, thanks to classic Fleet Foxes vocal harmonies and a wide variety of winding melodies that prevent the track from growing stale. It is an examination of life and a tribute to bandmate Skyler Skjelset. The song also makes numerous references to the Francisco Goya painting of the same title, which depicts the brutal execution of Spanish civilians by French soldiers.

The painting serves as an analogy for the relationship between Pecknold and Skjelset in the six years following the release and touring of Helplessness Blues. At the beginning, “Third of May” is a very upbeat track, a smile-inducing reflection on a happier time. In the latter half of the track, the attitude descends into one of regret and sadness. I think almost every human being at one point longs for a lost time, whether that be high school, college, or reaching the peak of one’s career. For Pecknold, this moment of longing resides in crafting a piece of art with an extremely close friend, only to see the two slowly separate in the following years.

“Third of May” perfectly encapsulates the message Fitzgerald tried to convey in “The Crack-Up”. During the six-year long hiatus, Pecknold appears to be struggling with the life-changing breakdowns that the essay frequently mentions. He feels like a visitor in his hometown of Seattle, he feels unable to connect with a former close friend, and he remains unsure if his band will ever get back together again. Despite all of this change, though, he clings to music as the one thing that will get him through this transitional period. I could honestly write an entire article just on this song, but I will spare you and leave you a couple beautiful lines from it:


“Oh, but I can hear you loud in the center

Aren’t we made to be crowded together, like leaves?”


The rest of Crack-Up is dotted with little gems, like the simplistic but endearing acoustic ballad “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me”. The vocal harmonies, found on nearly every track, now come to the forefront, and the result is absolutely astounding. I know I must sound like a broken record talking about the vocals, but I dare you to find a modern band who does it better.

There is also the wonderful “On Another Ocean”, continuing the oceanic theme that finds itself repeated throughout the album. The song is divided into two parts, January and June, and begins appropriately as though the band were trapped by the snow in a dark winter cabin. In the second half, it is as though the sun finally rises, allowing the group to explore the coastal forest they inhabit. Once again, the band explores the concept of two conflicting mindsets existing side by side.

Like Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues before it, Crack-Up cannot be fully enjoyed unless listened to from beginning to end. Tracks like “Fool’s Errand” and “Mearcstapa” are not nearly as good alone as they are when part of the monumental work of music that Fleet Foxes have constructed. In an industry where chart-topping singles are often the goal of huge record companies, it is refreshing to see a band put all their energy into creating a well-rounded record, without worry of radio play or chart position. After all, the lead single was nine minutes.

So, was Crack-Up worth the excruciating six year wait? Without a doubt, yes. Whether or not it supersedes the previous albums remains to be seen, but I can be completely satisfied in that, not only is it a truly extraordinary record, but it stands out for its uniqueness and powerfully emotive lyrics. Whereas Helplessness Blues was a lush and heavenly observation on love and individuality, Crack-Up is a densely packed examination of finding oneself stuck at a crossroads, mustering up the courage to pick a direction and go at it head-first. 

Kyle Land is a music writer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or

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