In the space of three years, from 2008 to 2011, Fleet Foxes released three records. A sublime EP, Sun Giant (2008), which placed them firmly on the indie/folk map, followed by their eponymous debut LP released the same year, bringing them critical acclaim internationally, then in 2011, their sophomore album Helplessness Blues put them in the running for a Grammy.
A six-year recording hiatus followed, broken only by sporadic solo performances from the brains and voice of the band Robin Pecknold. 2017 will be graced by the release of Fleet Foxes third full-length record Crack-Up, and on March 7, the single “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” breaks the sexennial silence.
Nearly nine-minutes long, the track is replete with complex, full-bodied string arrangements interweaving with driving guitar, which are then interrupted by almost haunting moments of quiet. The song’s title is itself multi-layered.
Inspired partly by a Francisco Goya painting, while lending the name of a Japanese mountain on the border of Nara, “Third Of May / Ōdaigahara” is an exploration of Pecknold’s relationship with close friend, Fleet Foxes bandmate and Crack-Up’s co-producer Skyler Skjelset, whose birthday is coincidentally, on the 3rd of May.
Speaking to Pitchfork, Pecknold explains that the album title Crack-Up nods to an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, and is also informed by the notion of internal dichotomy and the schism between one’s perception of reality and its objective form.
With this in mind, Pecknold suggests that many of the tracks on Crack-Up feature jarring, non-linear transitions. This is certainly the case for “Third Of May / Ōdaigahara”. The track contains marked and sudden breaks from heady strings to dead silence, interrupted only by Pecknold’s gentle murmurs. Part of the appeal of “Third Of May” is its mercurial nature. The shifts and jolts are often unexpected, but in a track of such length they are welcome.
If you were to revisit Fleet Foxes’ discography 2008-2011, you would have little trouble filing them under Indie or Folk. But if Crack-Up’s first single is anything to go off, the band has floated into a more nebulous space.
Given such a lengthy intermission which Pecknold filled with a Columbia University degree, this is perhaps to be expected. The boundaries of the indie genre have blurred since the simpler times of 2010, and Fleet Foxes appear to be working along this postmodern trajectory.
The beginning of the track sounds characteristically Fleet Foxes, rhythmically familiar, Pecknold’s vocal range impressive and the harmonies rich. Yet the song shifts without warning into murkier waters. The intensity of the strings and challenging vocal melodies, particularly placed next to the eerie interludes, point more in the direction of Scott Walker than the Fleet Foxes of yesteryear.
The track in its entirety does not conform to the structural conventions of popular song – it probably demands a couple of listens – but it is worth your time.
Crack-Up is out on the 16th of June on Nonesuch Records.
Words by Dan Carabine