Robin Pecknold may have written most of Crack-Up before enrolling at Columbia University. Nevertheless, Fleet Foxes’ first album in six years smacks of the collegiate experience and the havoc it can wreak on art.

For example, these lines from “Third of May / Odaigahara” could’ve come straight from some Hart Crane-besotted undergrad’s notebook:

third of may

Earlier this year, Pecknold told Pitchfork associate editor Matthew Strauss that this song dissects his relationship with bandmate Skyler Skjelset (who coproduced the album with him). That’s all well and good, but you couldn’t possibly infer this without him explaining it. Also, art majors might catch the song’s allusions to Francisco Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808 (Strauss did), but few others will without consulting Google. It’s not at all clear what a mountain in Japan has to do with the song either.

Pecknold’s lyrics aren’t always so obtuse, though. These lines from the album’s opening track, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” are straightforward enough:


But even when parsable lyrics like these pop up, they get buried beneath tempo shifts, melody shifts and layers of vocals, guitars, strings, field recordings and who knows what else.

However, Crack-Up suffers less from its obscurity than from a certain callowness. Pecknold and company don’t seem to offer much justification for all the musical and literary ornamentation. They come off like an overzealous literature major that’s so eager to be clever that he forgets to be understood.

Not that Pecknold doesn’t want to be understood. After Stereogum ran a negative review of Crack-Up on June 9, he left an articulate, somewhat passive-aggressive defense of the album in the comments section. Hopefully, Pecknold will channel that energy into music that requires less explication.

In the meantime, listeners who need their Fleet Foxes fix might want to dust off Helplessness Blues.