Secret Meeting score: 88
Written by Philip Moss and Phil Scarisbrick
A lot can happen in music when you take your time following up successful albums. Despite the recent resurgence of vinyl, the industry is now almost wholly focused on digital and online streaming figures have soared since 2011, equating to $7.9bn last year – 50 per cent of label revenue. Meaning Fleet Foxes are returning to an unstable environment for many independent artists, regardless of past success.
Plus, it’s been all-change internally, too. Drummer Josh Tillman left the group to release three records as Father John Misty with his latest, Pure Comedy, earning him a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative record. There’s also been a change of record label, leaving their contract with Sub Pop (US) and Bella Union (UK) behind to sign a new worldwide deal with Nonesuch.
Influenced by an F. Scott Fitzgerald article written for Esquire magazine in 1936 (in which the writer discusses his regrets and failures), Crack-Up is a deeply dense and wordy record. On first listen, singer Robin Pecknold meanders through seemingly unlinked literary and historical events, while casting any semblance of popular song structure to the fire.
Rather brave given the stakes are so high. Not only because of the quality of their previous output, but the time it has taken for it appear. So it makes it even more satisfying when the results are this good.
Opening song, I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar begins with a hushed vocal and lo-fi acoustic guitar stabs, before harmonies swell. It erupts into a glorious technicolour in the second part of the suite, where that trademark, brashly strummed acoustic sound from the first two records emerges. Yet, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in the aforementioned article, Pecknold spends much of the song reflectively looking back – ‘I was a child in the ivy then… all is behind you/all is sea’ – as a sample of children singing White Winter Hymnal (taken from their debut record) and the sound of lapping waves wash over the listener as the song fades to a close.
The opener is the perfect introduction to the musical journey that follows. Though all of this begs the question, is finding a place where he fits into the contemporary music scene what’s making him ‘Crack-Up’? Or is it something much bigger than that?
Some claim Robin Pecknold is too clever for his own good. But, if you’re anything like me, the tangled, mysterious and inwardly layered lyrics only add to the conspiracy theory. And although the sound is fleetingly reminiscent of past works, the record is psychologically a far deeper and more musically rich affair. On the title track, he makes a clear statement on the political climate in his homeland but with a richer sense of history than most commentators can muster in a year’s worth of articles/tweets/journals – “When the world insists/That the false is so/With a philippic as Cicero/The tighter the fist, the looser the sand.”
Returning to streaming figures, by far the most popular song on Spotify (with over 13m plays) is If You Need To, Keep Time On Me. On a record with such epic soundscapes as the ones on display here, it is a little curious that it is the most hushed and sparse moment that seems to have captured the imagination of those listening online. That is until you hear the song for yourself. A simple piano opening transitions into a fragile yet powerful vocal, which transports you in to Pecknold’s psyche. The subtle key change a minute in adds to the suspense, as he ponders what went wrong and lets out his delusion with what is happening in the world, particularly his home country; an over-hanging theme of this record. But to cherry pick songs from this album would be a crime. This is six years of carefully crafted, intellectual, narrative songwriting. And to those who were worried that the prolonged absence meant they were finished – thank god it wasn’t true.