Album Cover Courtesy of Fleet Foxes/Nonesuch Records

Ever-shape-shifting in sound and energy, and always weighted in deep and provocative thought, folk-rock darlings Fleet Foxes have captivated fans of the indie genre ever since their soothing 2008 EP, ‘Sun Giant.’ Quickly making a name for themselves with hymn-like hits ‘Ragged Wood’ and ‘White Winter Hymnal,’ and the guitar-strumming journey of ‘Mykonos,’ the Seattle-born outfit managed to drum up even more success with two dream-like rock records. Tightly-wound in evocative lyricism and swelling with slow-building ambitions, the band became the masters of gentle, atmospheric harmonies that never failed to deliver something unusual and daringly unexpected.

Then, like fading echoes spiraling down a bottomless canyon, they vanished.

After a near six-year hiatus, following their 2011 sophomore record in ‘Helplessness Blues,’ the band emerged, seemingly, with a fresh sense of purpose. After frontman Robin Pecknold — who continues to hold the group together with his angelic and nuanced vocals — went off to finish his studies at Columbia University in New York City, the folk rock-stars floated back into the spotlight at a time that seemed, to me at least, almost perfect. With the band gliding its way into my eardrums only a year or two ago, just as easily to drift away when something more vibrant and distracting came along, I never expected the summer of 2017 to deliver such an audacious return for what now might be one of my favorite mainstream folk groups.

Of course, while Summer 2017 might aim to throw us more catchy radio hits from the likes of Lorde’s ‘Melodrama’ or some other grander, young talent that could just as easily capture a mainstream audience, Pecknold and Fleet Foxes seem to find peaceful solace in the quiet of the north-west woodlands. Rising from their hiatus in the bottomless canyon of unexplored potential, the group reeled their fanbase back in for ‘Crack-Up,’ an album rich with their signature avant-garde melodies and harmony-driven lyrics, but teeming with new and wild intentions.

Witnessing the return of a group that garnered their share of critical acclaim across the United Kingdom, blending the timeless motifs of the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel with their own lush instrumentation, I found myself on the brink of both fascination and timid frustration while listening to their latest release. While I welcomed the return of their well-kept and straightforward folk tunes in ‘Naiads, Cassadies’ and ‘Fool’s Errand,’ I was left feeling overtly thrown off by their spawning experimentation in tracks like ‘I Should See Memphis’ and the album opener ‘I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar.’ While the tracks are no doubt highly ambitious and could be passed off as brief signs of the band tinkering with something new, it ultimately left the album feeling disjointed, even when the tracks tried to bleed seamlessly into one another.

Tossing in such oddities within an album that is lined ever-so-covertly with provocative references to the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ancient Egypt and the U.S. Civil War is of course not uncommon within the lush repertoire of Fleet Foxes. Ever since their first EP, the band has intermingled strange yet tranquil moments of reflection and solitude among their slow-building harmonies. Allowing for the listener to take a breather and slow down before the instruments swell back to life, the band — especially its frontman in Peckhold — is no stranger to diving into what lies beyond the music.

While ‘Crack-Up’ is surely a profound return for a group of folk rockers as defining and heavenly in sound as Fleet Foxes, there are a handful of moments when the band perhaps drifts too far from the shore and gets lost in their overall ambitions. While their latest is easily one to lose yourself in, its harmonies true and its style unique, ‘Crack-Up’ manages to renew my faith in the contemplative folk stars, but leaves me questioning where they’ll go from here.

The latest album from Fleet Foxes ‘Crack Up’ is now available via iTunes and stores everywhere.