There’s something both incredible and daunting about crafting a near perfect debut record, to the point where it gets named by everyone and their mother to be the best thing released that year. Fleet Foxes pulled off such an achievement, as their self-titled first album won over millions of hearts, minds and ears just a few years ago in 2008. The sun-streamed pastoral folk with rich vocal harmonies made for some glorious throwback to the heydays of Fairport Convention, The Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” absolutely applies in this case, with the band having to deal with the pressures of immediate success and how to craft a follow-up album that might be equal to or greater than what came before it. Making the entire process that much more painstaking was a serious battle with writer’s block that frontman Robin Pecknold encountered, not to mention a large number of songs that wound up in the trash after the band considered them unsatisfactory. So it’s been a tough road, but Fleet Foxes have moved past it, incorporating their frustration and depression into a darker sophmore effort with a title that says it all, “Helplessness Blues”.
Right from the opening verse of first track “Montezuma”, there’s a noticeable difference in what Fleet Foxes are doing compared to their last record. “Sun It Rises” was the introduction to the self-titled album, and it featured warm acoustic strings and a pace that was just shy of galloping. It very much exuded the ethos of the title and lyrics, that of a warm ball of light sliding up from below the horizon. By contrast, “Montezuma” has a faster plucked guitar but deliberately slow lyrics that play to a lower register rather than a higher one. Robin Pecknold immediately stands out front as his vocals are not enveloped in harmonies as he begins by questioning his place in life. “So now i am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?” he ponders moments before some backing harmonies step in to provide support and a bit more beauty amid the percussion-free fragility. Elsewhere in the song Pecknold ponders his own mortality, questioning if upon his placement in a coffin, “I wonder if I’ll see/any faces above me/or just cracks in the ceiling”. About mid-way through, a dam busts open and a shimmering keyboard emerges along with some more forceful harmonies to bring some added warmth to a relatively cold and troubled track. Yet despite having these nagging questions and feelings, the way Pecknold sings it projects a certain confident weariness, as if to say he hasn’t been living his life right but knows just how to get on the right path.
The way that “Bedouin Dress” develops makes for one of the more fascinating parts on the first half of the record. In what becomes a theme for much of “Helplessness Blues”, Pecknold continues to remain out in front of everything else with a solo vocal, with only touches of background harmonies here and there. There’s a little bit of a violin spread out across the track, helping to give it just a touch of alt-country vibe, but the overall structure truly takes the cake. The song has no official chorus, just a few different phrases that are repeated at various points with little to no discrimination. As such, it makes the track hard to pin down and equally unmemorable. Just because there’s no solid hook or make for easy recall doesn’t mean it’s any less great though, and the more defiant, experimental nature of the song gives it most of the credit it would have to earn elsewhere. In other words, it’s given a lot more wiggle room because it’s pushing boundaries and succeeding. Similarly, “Sim Sala Bim” somewhat follows the path of a story, with Pecknold on a diatribe as he questions why he’s in a relationship. “What makes me love you despite the reservations?/What do I see in your eyes/besides my reflection hanging high?” he selfishly wonders, also thinking maybe she put a spell on him. After two minutes of such precious thoughts though, the doors blow open and the final minute of the song is a full-on hard acoustic guitar strum, suddenly whipping the song into a frenzy it hadn’t even hinted at beforehand. It’s gorgeous and a rush and one of the things Fleet Foxes do best as learned from their debut album. The first third of the record continues to play with differing sounds and textures courtesy of “Battery Kinzie”, as the band places their guitars in the background in favor of pounding piano and drums. Unlike a number of tracks on the album that explore the boundaries of space and occasionally turn into extended jam sessions, “Battery Kinzie” wraps up in under 3 minutes and quite succintly after the second time through the chorus. Considering the pace and melody are lovely, it’s one of the few moments on the album you’re left wondering if they could have done more.
The two longest tracks on “Helplessness Blues” are actually ones that function more as separate pieces molded into singular entities. Clocking in at nearly 6 minutes, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” begins with a bit of a psychedelic trip. Voices moan, breaking into “oohs” and “aahs” that pile on top of one another, both harmonizing and overlapping at the same time. An acoustic guitar and drums attempt to hold down some sort of order but to no avail, until all of that simply drifts away 2 minutes in to make room for the harmony rich acoustics of the second part of the track, complete with piano and flute accompaniment. The final 90 seconds of the song really shift into an entirely different gear as the drums become more insistent and crack the building tension wide open to a more majestic viewpoint. Towards the end of the record, “The Shrine/An Argument” is an 8 minute breakup saga that is the record’s Piece de Resistance. The most immediately noticeable thing about the track is that it features Pecknold stretching his voice to levels strained with heartbreak that feel completely geniune. Using the long-standing tradition of making wishes by throwing pennies into a fountain, Pecknold waxes poetic on a love that’s since vanished. “I’m not one to ever pray for mercy/or to wish on pennies in the fountain or the shrine/but that day/you know I left my money and I thought of you/only all that copper glowing fine/and I wonder what became of you”, he sings just before transitioning into the second part of the track, which may be a flashback to where their relationship disintigrated. “In the doorway holding every letter that i wrote/in the driveway pulling away putting on your coat/in the ocean washing off my name from your throat”, he mourns, and as the waves begin to draw closer and closer to him, he lays down in the sand in the hopes that he’ll be taken away “like pollen on the breeze”. The final two minutes of the track are resigned to a rather turbulent instrumental, the most troubling and experimental moment on the entire record. Trumpets and saxophones and woodwinds and a host of other instruments tumble over one another in a very squeaky and off-key fashion, like a drunkard with little to no experience trying to play his favorite song. As to the actual feelings it invokes, all the dischordant noise can be attributed to the sonic equivalent of crashing waves slamming down over and over on top of that grief stricken body laying on the beach quietly wishing for all that pain to just wash away. It’s a mighty powerful moment worthy of close attention and careful analysis. And despite the very dark nature of the song, it might just be the smartest written and composed Fleet Foxes track to date.
While “The Shrine/An Argument” may be the true standout track on “Helplessness Blues”, the title track best sums up the many different aspects of the band’s sound at work across the entire record. It’s fitting that the title track is also the first single given its energy and harmony-rich vocals. The storyline is a relatively classic one too, retreating back to much of the nature-inspired imagery of the band’s debut in the second half of the song, as Pecknold sings, “If I had an orchard I’d work til I’m sore”. But really the point is wishing to return to a life of simplicity, where the pressure to be something greater than yourself and achieve fame and fortune can be crippling. Though sadness pervades the lyrics of “Lorelai”, the rather straightforward and appealingly sunny melody suggests otherwise. Unlike most of the other songs on this record that are rather tough nuts to crack, it’s one of the few that seems to have potential as a future single. The other is closing track “Grown Ocean”, which emerges like a phoenix out of the semingly broken ashes much of the rest of the record seems to espouse. Not only does it have energy, but it’s positive outlook is a breath of fresh air after the more somber preceeding cuts. In some ways, the track almost feels tacked on to the end, particularly given the flow of the record and the stoic Gram Parsons-esque Pecknold solo acoustic number “Blue Spotted Tail” that meekly exists just before it. Yet that final release is required, lest you drown amidst the choppy waves of the blues.
In spite of how well it’s put together, “Helplessness Blues” is not an easy record to like. Time, patience and a hefty dose of empathy are required to fully grasp exactly what’s going on here, and if you’re not willing to give this album all that then you might find yourself turned off by it. Hooks and memorable choruses are hard to come by, as is energy at certain points, and most of the lyrics will take you to a dark place. The overall melodies remain strong however, as do those vocal harmonies despite being in shorter supply as Pecknold takes the reins just a little bit more than last time. The progression though is highly impressive. Instrumentally the band has expanded their core by leaps and bounds, playing a number of things barely heard on records today such as a Marxophone, Tibetan singing bowls and a touch of timpani. Despite this expansive set of instruments, the up-front elements in any track are always the acoustic guitar or piano with everything else buried in the deep crevasses of the background. Pecknold has also grown significantly as a songwriter, bringing sharper imagery to his words while also peppering them with strong emotional ties. Rather than write a record about the expanse of nature, with its “Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Meadowlarks” and “Ragged Wood”, he’s taking a look inward at his own insecurities and troubles. From worries about living the kind of life he desires or was told to desire through the shattered relationships that have left him beaten and bruised, it’s a different, more insular approach and one that works quite well. Between that and his dominant singing voice though, you’ve got to wonder exactly how much influence the other guys in the band had with the final product. It’s enough to make you think that a Robin Pecknold solo record could be coming down the pipe sooner rather than later. For the time being though, “Helplessness Blues” is once again another notch in the Fleet Foxes cap, pushing the band to different but equally (if not more) compelling places than their debut. With a record as good as this, the band proves they’re neither helpless, nor do they have a strong reason to be singing the blues.