After a six-year absence, Fleet Foxes are picking up right where they left off.
In fact, the Seattle folk rockers’ new album, Crack-Up, kicks off with an F chord, an intentional continuation of the key in the final track of their previous album. While a meticulous attention to detail has long been a marker for the band’s serene, harmony-soaked compositions, frontman Robin Pecknold says the bridge that aligns 2011’s Helplessness Blues’ “Grown Ocean” to Crack-Up’s “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” happened rather organically.
“Linking the albums together came up just in the course of recording,” he says. “I noticed that the song I had been writing to be the first song on the new album was in the same key as the last song on Helplessness Blues, and that song [‘Grown Ocean’] never resolved, so it seemed like an opportunity to build a bridge. I sort of built in a bridge for the next album at the end of Crack-Up.”
To hear Pecknold make reference to the possibility of a fourth Fleet Foxes album is a revelation for fans, many of whom have patiently waited since 2011 for the band’s third record to materialize.
The culprit is Pecknold himself. Following the success of Helplessness Blues, he decided he needed a break from the musician’s life.
During his time away from the band, he completed an undergraduate degree at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. He also traveled extensively, embracing a wanderlust that saw him surfing waves in Nicaragua and visiting Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal while on a backpacking trip. He says Crack-Up draws equally on the knowledge he gained in the classroom and out in the wild.
“I think everything I’ve experienced and every weird situation I’ve put myself in has shaped who I am now,” he says. “I’d say the main events that have shaped me over the last decade haven’t even made their way into any press about the band, which is cool with me.”
Pecknold’s desire for some time to himself is understandable. Now 31, he was barely old enough to drink when Fleet Foxes issued its first EP — The Fleet Foxes — in 2006. Two years later, the band’s popularity exploded with the release of its full-length debut (the somewhat confusingly titled Fleet Foxes). While nowadays the sounds of folk-infused pop and rock are rampant, Fleet Foxes was ahead of the curve. Far from rehashing the folk sensibilities of artists who had come before them, the band stitched together gorgeous harmonies, poetic lyrics, and elements of classic rock to create something at once remarkably lush and timelessly elegant.
Indeed, the music of Fleet Foxes has often been compared to landscapes, a nod to the way its songs often serve in part as an aural companion to the vast beauty of nature. The distinction is one Pecknold fully supports.
“As I get older, [I’ve started] to appreciate music for more than just melodies and dynamics,” he says. “I also think in terms of texture, how a sound can evoke an image.”
Pecknold says that Crack-Up contains elements of this fascination.
“I like that some parts of the album are almost static,” he adds. “Where there is so much occurring at once that the ear almost has to behave like an eye, darting around the sound field and focusing in on various things as you would have to do in the front row at a film.”
Unlike the downright ethereal sensibilities of Fleet Foxes’ first two records, Crack-Up explores notions of disillusionment, perhaps in part spurred by Pecknold’s admission that following Helplessness Blues, he wasn’t sure if he should continue forward with music or focus his efforts elsewhere. While the release of Crack-Up is, hopefully, a sign that he’s found his answer, Pecknold acknowledges the role those feelings played in shaping the record.
“In periods in the past five years of my life when I did feel disillusioned, I just made an effort to pursue other things that might strike my curiosity in a new way,” he says. “But making albums is weird. I wasn’t in the thrall of any particular mood that is in the songs while actually recording them — that phase was over as of the writing — and [so] recording was almost like executing an emotional script that a past self had written and attempting to achieve an emotional balance and also create an arc of feeling.”
However, even though the band is now back — and once again touring behind a highly lauded album — Pecknold says it’s simply not his nature to dwell too long on the fruits of his labor. Even a recent four-night stand at the Sydney Opera House can’t compete with a desire for perfection.
“For better or worse — mostly worse — I remain pretty nitpicky and perfectionist about shows,” he says. “If I miss too many notes, it’s a wash. I haven’t had a minute yet to sit back and acknowledge that this [was] a rare and privileged experience, as I always look for ways to make it better and to not squander the talent that puts these opportunities in front of me.
“But yes, I guess a show at the Opera House is as good a sign as any that music is probably where I am most useful,” he adds. “So that’s great.”
Fleet Foxes play Friday at 7:10 p.m. on the Sutro Stage.
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