I was eager to visit Dream House with Pecknold in part because Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes’ new full-length record, is chiefly concerned with finding peace amid chaos. It’s also more dissonant and plainly mesmeric than anything the band has made before, and filled with these beautiful little half-admissions of inadequacy: “Was I too slow? Did you change overnight?” Pecknold wonders on “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” It’s the kind of question a person asks when they are re-considering a failure that continues to befuddle them, hours or months or years later.
Since the last Fleet Foxes release, 2011’s Helplessness Blues, Pecknold moved from the Pacific Northwest to New York City’s Lower East Side, exchanging relative quiet for the established bedlam of Manhattan. “I felt like I was a little too West Coast—too much of a pushover,” he told me earlier in the day, over lunch at a Japanese restaurant in Tribeca. “Coming here, I feel like I’ve gained some grit. It’s such a hard place to live sometimes. It steels you.”
Pecknold is gentle and intelligent, a hungry listener; talking with him, you get the sense that an antenna is always up and open, collecting new and better information about the world. After relocating to New York, Pecknold, then 26, enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where he began a major in English. He played some opening sets for Joanna Newsom. He co-wrote the score to an off-Broadway play. He participated in a note-by-note live recreation of No Other, Gene Clark’s 1974 folk-rock masterpiece. Mostly, though, he was trying to reason through the trajectory of his own life—what he wanted, what it meant, and how to get there without, well, cracking up.
Spend any time with Pecknold’s work, and it’s impossible not to hear a person carefully reasoning-through the total lunacy of being alive. Narratively, Crack-Up recounts some sort of loss; its source feels alternately romantic, political, creative, and spiritual. Pecknold sings, mournfully, of an uncertain future—until, on the record’s back half, he seems to reconcile everything.
“The record is about me going from being a solitary person, to reentering the band, reentering old relationships,” Pecknold says.
He admits that uncertainty and contradiction have been on his mind these past few years—all the ways in which two seemingly incompatible ideas can come to coexist. Wanting to be alone but needing others; feeling flummoxed by all the big existential questions, yet still wanting to live a full and generous life.
Pecknold titled the record in part after a three-part essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald that appeared in Esquire in the winter and spring of 1936. Fitzgerald understood that growing up is largely about having to reckon with oppositions in which both halves somehow prove true. “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise,” he wrote.
Of course, this requires more than a little self-deception, and Crack-Up contains multiple mentions of lies and lying: “Lies inside anyone you open,” Pecknold repeats on “On Another Ocean (January / June).” “But I know my eyes/They’ve often lied,” he admits on “Fool’s Errand.” Or, on “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”: “And as the sky would petal white, old innocent lies came to mind/As we stood, congregated, at the firing line.” Pecknold titled one song after Cassius of Rome, a leading instigator in the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar; one of the grisliest scenes in all of The Inferno is when Dante’s winged, three-mouthed Lucifer gnaws on Cassius, whose betrayal condemned him to eternal suffering, forever crammed, feet-first, into Lucifer’s maw. Cassius lied, and he was punished for it.
“I think about lying a lot,” Pecknold admits. But rather than an unforgivable sin, he figures lying as a kind of inevitable coping strategy: “Going back to the idea of balance—I’ve had a very objective mindset going into school, and at school. I was like, ‘OK, but what’s the objective right answer, in music?’ But there is no right answer,” he continues. “I can’t be this objective about everything, or about people. For example, if you were to say, ‘Life is not worth living, there’s no meaning to life,’ and you decided to take that as objectively true, then you’d need to establish something like a lie to be able to keep going—to give it meaning. One way of thinking about it is as deceiving yourself. Or, in relationships, when you’re trying to balance seeing someone as they really are versus the required romance—not necessarily romantic-romance, but the energy of romance...”
“Well, every human relationship is a kind of fiction,” I venture.
“Totally,” he says. “But in my early 20s, I was projecting my expectations onto everybody: This person is the damsel, this person is the villain, this person is my sidekick, this person is my hero. Making characters out of everyone. It’s kind of a survival mechanism, but it’s also reductive.”
On “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar,” the record’s six and a half-minute opening epic, Pecknold sings of his unfair expectations: “And the myth I made you measure up to/It was all just water, winding by you.”