I have too much music to listen to.
I understand, of course, that on the scale of problems I could have, “I have too much music to listen to” doesn’t really rate. It ranks up there with “I don’t like this new car smell” and “I really wish people would stop handing me money for no reason.” I get that. But bear with me. I promise this won’t be too whiny.
Because I want to talk about complexity this week, which is a common theme here at Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. I love complexity. I love albums that require a dozen listens to fully grasp, and even then you end up finding more and more to praise about them. I love music that requires my time and patience to unravel and to truly appreciate. I absolutely adore spending weeks with a new record, swimming in its depths, piecing together my reaction to it.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. With the virtual tidal wave of new music coming at me lately, I’m only able to give most records two or three listens. If I don’t keep this pace up, I miss out on giving at least one listen to everything I buy, and I would like to keep up. But that means that when faced with albums of the caliber and complexity I’m writing about this week, I just don’t have the time to give them the attention they need.
So what you’re getting this week is first impressions of albums that I know I will be listening to for years. Both of these records give me that tingly feeling in the back of my head, the one that says to me that I’m hearing an album I will treasure for a long, long time. And both of them, it must be said, are tricky and dense and difficult enough that I know I am only scratching the surface right now, and it will take months of repeated plays to truly unlock everything here.
Both of them floated in seemingly out of nowhere, too. It’s been long enough since the second Fleet Foxes album, 2011’s lovely Helplessness Blues, that you’d be forgiven for wondering if we would ever get a third one. Leader Robin Pecknold has been talking about new Fleet Foxes music for a while, but as the years ticked by without any specifics, it felt like empty talk.
And hell, not many bands deliver two near-perfect records and a glorious EP to boot. It’s a fine legacy, one built on celestial harmonies and earthy, timeless songs. I still consider the self-titled Fleet Foxes album to be one of the finest records of my lifetime. Could a new album even live up? Would it be the curse of the Difficult Third Record, destined to be admired from a distance but never loved?
Crack-Up, that decidedly weird and complicated third record, is in fact all of those things. It is absolutely the band’s Difficult Third, but it’s also a textbook case of how to embrace that cliché while doing it right. Virtually nothing about Crack-Up is easy. It contains long, multi-part songs, some separated by slashes (like opener “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/The Thumbprint Scar”), some spread out over adjacent tracks. Pecknold’s penchant for writing indelible, timeless melodies has not exactly been pushed aside, but has been relegated to second place behind the obvious joy he takes in stretching his prog-folk orchestrations as far as they can go.
And they go very far indeed. The scratchy, almost inaudible opening of the album begins a crescendo that breaks with the gigantic clarinets-and-piano ending of second track, “Cassius, -“ which, as the title indicates, segues directly into its sweet second half on track three, “- Naiads, Cassiades.” The track titles aren’t hiding quick and clever pop tunes behind them – they’re appropriate for the gorgeous, patient, study-worthy music Pecknold has written.
Crack-Up, even more than the first two Fleet Foxes records, needs and deserves to be heard as a whole. The way the rolling piano of “Kept Woman” picks up perfectly from the pitched-down guitar at the end of the prior track is seamless. By the time you’re through the nearly nine-minute “Third of May/Odaigahara,” the fifth winding and tricky song in a row, you’re ready for something simpler, and right on cue, here is the beautiful plainsong “If You Need To, Keep Time on Me.” It does exactly what it’s supposed to, at exactly the right place in the album.
There’s no doubt, though, that over 55 minutes, this level of complexity can get wearying. Pecknold and his bandmates still deliver those woodsy, men-out-of-time harmonies, and they are still perfect – they take your hand and guide you when the melodies get too obscure. But this is the kind of album that will find you needing an anchor, something to hang your brain on. The second half is marginally more immediate, particularly the stunning “On Another Ocean,” but the concluding title track brings back the multitude of instruments, the ebb and flow of the musical tide that marks this record. Occasionally the song will drop from full orchestration to nearly empty spoken word and then crash back again, horns wailing. It’s mammoth, almost too much to absorb.
Given all that, does Crack-Up add to the Fleet Foxes legacy, or take it down a blind alley? If you’re like me, you’ll find it hard to say after the first few listens. But I have the unmistakable feeling that this album will only grow more rewarding as I listen further. It’s definitely their Difficult Third Record, but even at this early stage, I feel like it’s a bit of a masterpiece, and I look forward to learning more about it.
If you think Crack-Up is complicated, you may want to buckle in for Planetarium, our other contestant this week. This one is positively brain-melting. I’ve heard it four times, and I still don’t quite have it mapped out in my head. I just know that it’s utterly brilliant.
Of course, an album like this could only come from Sufjan Stevens, perhaps the finest musical mind of my generation. It is also ostensibly a collaboration with Bryce Dessner of the National, string arranger Nico Mulhy and multi-instrumentalist and producer James McAllister, and while I hear all of them in this thing to varying degrees (with the blessed exception of Dessner), the dominant force here is undoubtedly Stevens. Planetarium follows nicely from his Age of Adz experimentalism, mixed with his penchant for delirious melodies and multi-part orchestral suites.
But this is no retread. Written and refined over a period of years, the music on Planetarium goes further out than Stevens ever has. Framed as an exploration of our solar system and featuring songs for every planet (and Pluto!), the cosmic backdrop gives Stevens and his collaborators license to go supernova – some parts of this record leap further into the electropocalypse than even Age of Adz, and some parts are head-spinning progressive orchestral wonderamas. And some sections are so beautiful that I won’t have adequate words for them.
What is it like to listen to? Imagine being on a roller coaster that plunges underwater at random intervals, forcing you to pay attention and hold your breath at a moment’s notice. Every few seconds, there’s something new, some fresh hairpin turn, some moment that you swear is the best moment yet. And then seconds later, here comes another one. There are extraordinary epics here, like “Jupiter” and “Uranus” and the jittery, unbelievable “Earth,” and you’ll come back to those more than once, but there are also immediate pieces of gorgeous songcraft like “Saturn” and the delightful album-closing “Mercury.” While Planetarium can sometimes leave you lost in space, it always brings you back around.
There are some portions of Planetarium that even after four listens still befuddle me. The early stretches of “Mars,” for example, or the lovely yet too-long ambient pieces “Black Energy” and “Sun,” which stop the album’s momentum dead. But even those moments feel like they’re purposeful, that they fit into a larger vision. The lyrics are similarly head-scratching, as Stevens often is, but even more so this time. Much of it seems to be wrestling with God and our place in the universe – standard topics for Stevens – but enough of it is indecipherable that I can only hope that repeated listens will make it clear.
As you can tell, I’m barely beginning my journey with Planetarium, and already I know it’s like nothing else I own. I’m swept away by it, stunned into silence by its complexity and yet able to lose myself in it at the same time. This is a lot of music – 76 minutes, and it rarely slows down for you, throwing you new ideas at a feverish pace. But if you’re looking for music that takes you places and leaves you with the unmistakable sense that you have been somewhere else, and now you are not the same, then this is for you. It’s a lot to take in, but its rewards are many, and they will no doubt unfold over years and years.
Next week, it’s a songwriters’ paradise with Ani Difranco, Jason Isbell and Matthew Sweet. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.