Fleet Foxes’ creative leaders Robin Pecknold and Skyler Skjelset have always acknowledged their love of proto-prog works such as The Beach Boys’ Smile or Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, but their ambitions towards a similarly ambitious patchwork quilt of songs weren’t fully revealed until 2017’s third album, Crack-Up.
The opening track (intimidatingly titled I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar) seems to make a clear statement: ‘Our days of easily digestible folky paeans are behind us. Goodbye chamber pop, hello folk prog.’ Midway through typically harmony-drenched, richly melodic swells, they cut abruptly to softly plucked guitar and a vocal is whispered under Pecknold’s breath, as if he were recording introspective song ideas into a Dictaphone.
Later in the three-part track, the listener is repeatedly disoriented by sudden sound effects of him walking through doors while humming bars from the song to himself, lapping waves, clapping church choirs and much more.
Elsewhere on the album, the sprawling, nine-minute two-parter Third Of May /Ōdaigahara is similarly wrong-footing stuff. A lilting, joyous piano-based sweep lulls the listener into a beguiling sense of normal service being resumed, before it wanders off into a slowly strummed dreamscape that spirals in turn into a dizzy maelstrom of plucked strings – or, to use Pecknold’s own words, it “floats away into a beautiful nothing.”
That description was made in a posting on the lyric analysis website Genius, where he added further intrigue to the Crack-Up experience by explaining some of the lyrical references made in the track, taking in everything from the Goya painting Third Of May, 1808 to memories of band bike rides, Leonard Cohen lines and 18th-century poet Nathaniel Cotton, while asserting that the song is a time-travelling meditation about the history of his friendship with guitarist Skjelset.
As with a lot of the best prog, there’s a lot to unpack here. Throughout the 50-odd minutes in total, we hear something of a cut-up approach to songwriting, like men driven mad trying to emulate the simple charms of their own back catalogue and tearing their template to pieces instead.
But there are still plenty of sweet morsels to savour, such as the beautiful chorus swell of Fool’s Errand, the hypnotic piano figure underpinning Kept Woman, and the soft, meandering, minor chords of I Should See Memphis.
But even here, there’s an ever-present sense that surprise is around the corner. As such, this is music that jars as often as it soothes, and questions as often as it answers.
This article first appeared in Prog 85 in 2018.