I wouldn’t call myself the embodiment of outdoor exploration by any means, but when it comes to wilderness excursions, I’ve been quite a few places in my time.
Considering Memorial Day has passed once again, this marks the fifth year in a row that I’ve taken that extra day or two off of work to backpack on an adventure outside with friends, taking in all that nature has to offer. Spanning anywhere from mine and Fleet Foxes’ homeland in the Pacific Northwest, to Utah, to the California coastline, hiking is still a big part of my identity, and my endearing attitude for the beautiful sights and sounds of the great outdoors only grows as the years go by.
Seeing as this year offered up a special trip once again, this time in the North Cascades, I saw it best to try a little experiment with my existing fandom for the Seattle-based band, Fleet Foxes. To set the stage, Crack-Up was a highly anticipated release for me.
Fleet Foxes marks a shortlist of what I believe to be a canon indie-folk band, stretching beyond the bounds of the ordinary “Pandora Indie” playlist.
Sure, “Mykonos” is bound to flood any and every rendition of the entry level algorithms of online streaming, but in the thick of it all, Helplessness Blues is objectively (well, maybe just my opinion) an all-time great record. Robin Pecknold’s melodies are as ambitious as they have ever been, and his voice is another notch higher in expression and power from Fleet Foxes’ former works.
So when it came time to unpack the monster that is Crack-Up, initial perceptions felt just a tad off, and infinitely cluttered. Should I call this “progressive folk”, or just a tryhard ambition to earn that name? Whatever the case, Robin Pecknold had his sights set to the stars. If the track listing wasn’t any clue, immediately noticeable is the band’s use of multidimensional songwriting, with interludes and overtures galore. Is this a movie score, or a folk record? Am I working with a piece of such magnitude that it begs the need for gasp multiple listens to unpack it all?
Honestly, the first play through of Crack-Up was in my office chair.
I felt underwhelmed, slightly confused, and a little disappointed at the final product. I’m talking like “Dave Longsreth coaxing you into ranting about total bullshit” levels of disappointment. Accordingly, I didn’t just want to ditch the album entirely and chalk it up as a misstep in the Fleet Foxes catalog. So, with my annual backpacking excursion coming up, I thought it wise to dissect this record in its natural habitat. Or at least what many perceive to be peak listening environment. Where masterpieces like Is This It or Turn On The Bright Lights complement the New York City pavement, perhaps Crack-Up needed the wilderness treatment. Due West of Pecknold’s hometown of Seattle, to be specific.
Now walking several miles a day among rushing rivers and towering mountains on all sides leaves much to ponder in the pensive mind.
Not that it’s always contemplative epiphanies and personal revelation, but when you’re strolling out in nature with a pair of earbuds in, music just makes a little bit more sense. Or more so complements your surroundings in the moment. Out here, the lore of the land surrounded legend of Jack Kerouac writing some of his greatest works at Desolation Peak. Not to mention old tales of the 19th century gold rush.
I could spend a few hours Googling my own sparknote synopsis of the ties between all of these things and my own psyche, but honestly, I was reading an encyclopedia collection of every single N64 title in existence on the trail, not On The Road. Between that and the steady pacing of Crack-Up’s many buildups, I think my combination worked much better.
Prefacing the actual album release date were two singles, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” and “Fools Errand”.
These two songs sound like your classic chamber-folk Fleet Foxes epics. What listeners will perhaps be blindsided by is the inner workings of Crack-Up that blossom into huge tracks like these. At first, I was under the impression that Robin Pecknold shoehorned in these songs to gather interest in the record as a whole, where the rest is more or less filler disguised as an experiment gone wrong.
At a closer look, where songs are seemingly bottled up anticipations ready to explode, audiences are instead treated to repetitive song structures, with one track transitioning to the next as if one gigantic piece. A familiar sound sets off right from the start, the 3/3 stern strumming that sets “I Am All That I Need…” forward and appears again on “Mearcstapa”. Pacing stuck out to me like a sore thumb, but each quirk presented, every screeching halt and faint whisper setting the next song in line like we as listeners have entered a warp zone or something, it all reveals newer and greater qualities over time.
Every repeated listen yields new secrets, a fever dream even Rick McCallum couldn’t possibly hope to accomplish as an underlying guide to truly appreciating Crack-Up for everything it has to offer.
Fleet Foxes certainly have their staples as a band; from the multi-part harmonies to underlying pop tendencies, their brand of folk music peaks as an overall more intuitive product here. For better or worse, the melodies are as innovative as they are awkward, but above all, Robin Pecknold wants us to know that his time away from music was spent flaunting his newfound direction, both in life and in practice.
Personally, I’m glad he saw to it to head that way. Even better, it was a wonderful experiment to be able to combine two things in music and nature together. From Montana de Oro and the sights of “Fools Errand”, to the Lost Coast Trail, to my latest trek in the North Cascades, may Fleet Foxes continue to soundtrack mine and everyone else’s respective journeys to the ends of the earth.