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Crack Up (Nonesuch/Warner)

Someone please keep this album away from Malcolm Roberts, erstwhile Senate intellectual who thinks sending boys to school is a waste because they’ll gain more by “doing” than any of that there fancy book learnin’.

No doubt Senator Roberts, like most of us, was a fan of the first two Fleet Foxes albums where they mingled beatific harmonies to echo Crosby, Stills and Nash, electric folk instrumentation to remember Fairport Convention, and more Simon and Garfunkel delicateness and prettiness than either Simon or Garfunkel have managed in 50 years.

Well that was yesterday. Six years of yesterdays since album number two, Helplessness Blues. And if nothing else the 55 minutes of Crack Up will tell you that we’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.

For a start if musicology types are looking for a thesis topic they could do worse than ponder messages embedded in album titles. Let us consider the darkening skies between the debut’s blandly happy self-titling and the trouble-at-mill Helplessness Blues (by which time drummer/vocalist Josh Tillman had left to take acid, reconstitute his Father John Misty persona and make misanthropic pop) and then the presumed personal/group darkness that led to the I-don’t-think-it’s-a-metaphor Crack Up.

But perhaps more dangerous, understandably as Roberts would tell us, was chief Fox, Robin Pecknold, leaving the band behind for a couple of years to study music theory and composition at school.

As we saw in their Vivid Live shows a month ago, Pecknold wasn’t skiving at school and the fruit of his study is best observed in the greater complexity and more studied deviations of these new songs.

Fleet Foxes have taken the latent prog leanings of their early days and given them room to grow, allowing them equal time, and sometimes more time, than what has hitherto defined the band: its layers of simple beauty.

Voices still stack on voices and Pecknold still sounds caught between forlorn and rapture, but there is more on the undercard than plain old Simon, Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills et al.

So now songs can begin in an open road shimmer of expected prettiness and end in a cul-de-sac of loaded air and production effects that feel equal parts elusive and evasive.

At their best these elements bring a sense of natural wonder, like standing in a hazy clearing, feeling the press of growth and decay; at their least effective, they feel like a studied, “designed” garden to be appreciated rather than explored.

Some songs are designed as long excursions of multiple parts, such as Third Of May/Odaigahara and I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar which are territories in which to get lost and re-emerge changed in some way. Whether that is by the splendour of the journey or by the effect of dislocating change will be a personal response.

Some touch on dissonance and chord changes which prick up your ears intriguingly with their small provocations, but sometimes can feel like change for effect not change for a cause.

And, yes, some songs have “yeah, deep man” titles such as Third Of May/Odaigahara and I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar which might earn theses – or mockery - of their own.

Crack Up isn’t intended to be the third part of a series, as plain repetition clearly doesn’t interest Pecknold.

I don’t think it’s the first part of the next series however for Fleet Foxes seem a band in flux: adapting new ideas, testing themselves, and still looking for the final shape.

That means those coming for the pretty must prepare for more challenging, and not always, satisfying times. If it doesn’t work for you, well, the good senator would know what to blame: that dang book learnin’ and such.

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