Six years ago Fleet Foxes released their sophomore album “Helplessness Blues,” an album that built upon the baroque folk framework they established on their self-titled, first full-length album.
Less poppy and more existential, “Helplessness Blues” dealt with themes of one finding their place in the world and harboring oneself from the cold truths of reality. In hindsight, it made sense that this album was released before the band announced a hiatus.
It was in 2012 that drummer and vocalist Josh Tillman left the band to pursue a solo career, reinventing himself as the absurdist, sarcastic Father John Misty. Misty released “Fear Fun” that same year and since then has garnered writing credits on both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s most recent albums.
Missing a rhythm section, the band went on a full hiatus when frontman Robin Pecknold announced in 2014 that he had moved back to New York to pursue an undergraduate degree at Columbia University.
What followed was two years of silence until May of 2016 when Pecknold told fans on Instagram that he had been working with former Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan collaborator drummer Neal Morgan on new material. Six months later Fleet Foxes confirmed their new album was nearly complete.
Titled “Crack-Up,” the album is slated for release on June 16, 2017 and promises a new direction for the Foxes. On March 7, the day Pecknold and company revealed the title of the album, the single “3rd of May/Ōdaigahara” was released.
Coming in at eight minutes and 45 seconds long, “3rd of May” seems to be making up for lost time. Without an instrumental introduction, the song starts off in full-swing as Pecknold sings, “light ended the night, but the song remained.”
The line references the imagery evoked in the songs “Tangled Up in Blue’ by Bob Dylan and “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen. Pecknold here is referencing dark city streets filled with music as passerby walk to and from bustling cafes.
The “light” Pecknold sings about here is also present in the Francisco de Goya painting, “El tres de mayo en Madrid,” a painting that depicts the grim massacre of Spanish rebels at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops on a night in 1808.
Many illusions are made towards the Goya painting as Pecknold plays with double meanings all throughout the song. The third of May as portrayed by Goya is coincidentally the same day Fleet Foxes’ co-leader Skye Skjelset’s birthday falls on.
In much of the single Pecknold reflects on his friendship with Skjelset and the journeys the two have embarked on since touring with Fleet Foxes. While warm memories are aplenty, the tone of the song changes drastically as things get sonically more intense.
Pecknold describes feeling like a castaway in his hometown of Seattle after finishing the “Helplessness Blues” tour in Japan while thinking about the coincidences the third of May brings into his own life.
Pecknold sings,”I’m reminded all the time it all fell in line, on the third of May, as if it were designed, painted in the sand to be washed away.”
Here the lead singer ponders the possibility of a higher power’s design, all the while grasping at the reality of his own impermanence on this earth. Ever eclectic, Pecknold is also referencing imagery of Navajo and Tibetan Buddhist temporary sand paintings.
Towards the end of the song, all seems lost as Pecknold grapples with coincidences, existence and losing one’s way in the world. The instruments fade off as Pecknold mutters, “I’ll hold to the fleet angel, she’ll bless you. Hold fast to the wing. Hold fast to the wing.”
Should you listen to it? Yes.
Packed with references, double meanings and sweeping production, “3rd of May/Ōdaigahara” is a stunning return for the Fleet Foxes. If this is a sign of things to come from the Foxes, then we are on the cusp of receiving a phenomenal and impactful album.