In 2008, Fleet Foxes burst onto the scene with the release of their Sun Giant EP and self-titled debut album subsequently changing the face of 21st Century folk music. Fans and critics alike instantly fell in love with the band’s old-world charm, elegant musicianship and sublime songwriting craftsmanship. Romanticism of a bygone age and mass vocal harmonies suddenly became the vogue for indie bands, directly influencing the careers of artists as diverse as UK folk-pop maestros Mumford And Sons and the LA hipster-friendly indie-rock of Local Natives.
So when details surfaced of Fleet Foxes sophomore release, fans reacted with a mix of excitement and trepidation; could Helplessness Blues ever match the immediate thrill of their first release? Modern indie today demands constant reinvention. If yesterdays Chillwave acts aren’t now creating coffee-table Dubsteb, then they shall be cast onto the scrapheap of artistic inferiority. Helplnessness Blues is not a reinvention, but rather a refinement.
To a certain degree, this album is exactly what you’d expect from the band; acoustic guitars, complicated and compelling harmonies and possessing an assured rustic magic. Except this time round the band have matured and been able to further improve their already accomplished sound. Growing older is certainly playing on mind of front man and chief songwriter Robin Pecknold. Beginning the album with a direct departure from the previous two releases, both of which began with acapella tracks, with the song Montezuma which kicks in with gentle electric guitar and the line “So now I am older/ than my mother and father/ when they had their daughter/ now what does that say about me?”
Discontented with the speed at which his life is currently passing, Pecknold meditates on the passing of time throughout the entire album. Battery Kinzie laments over how the sands of time erode the physical condition with the shattering opening line, “I woke up one morning/ All my fingers rotten/ I woke up a dying man without a chance”. Instrumental interlude The Cascades acts as a moment of meditation until the next song finds Pecknold wearily excepting the fact that his time left on Earth is becoming shorter by opening Lorelai (which sounds suspiciously like Bob Dylan‘s 4th Time Around) with the line, “So, guess I got old/I was like trash on the sidewalk”. Even though the lyrical message is bleak the music is magnificently, and predictably, beautiful.
There are plenty of shifting styles within the album’s instrumentation to keep cynics at bay waiting to call Helplessness Blues the sound of a band stagnating: the playful fiddle of Bedouin Dress, the slamming of piano chords on the stomping Battery Kinzie and, rather unexpectedly, a flourish of free-form saxophone jazz resonant of Radiohead‘s The National Anthem on the track The Shrine/An Argument. There is plenty of familiarity to be marvelled at as well on this album. The harmonies achieve a similar aim to previous releases, carrying the song onwards and upwards as well as adding much needed texture and density to sparsely produced songs like Someone You’d Admire. The harmonies are admirably more complex, Pecknold’s voice is noticeably sweeter and the song-writing is more daring. The Shrine/An Argument, an unprecedented eight-minute song, changes its form four times showcasing four very disparate styles, culminating with that queasy Saxophone inspired fanfare.
The album’s title track is an example of Fleet Foxes perfecting what they do best. Beginning simply with Pecknold’s solitary voice and acoustic guitar expressing his inner turmoil of being unexceptional: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see/ And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be/ A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me”. Suddenly an upper harmony and second acoustic guitar backs up Pecknold, offering consolidation and comradery to the previously troubled front man who now defiantly claims “What good is it to sing helplessness blues?” The middle-eight shifts the weight of the song from the shoulders of two, allowing the whole band to alleviate the burden of existential crisis as a band of brothers in an emotionally stirring moment of choral congeniality.
Final track Grown Ocean is gloriously optimistic and offers one final curveball to the listener. All this talk about the misery of growing old has possibly been misleading, Pecknold isn’t distressed about being haggard with age, on the contrary he is in fact revelling in his youthful slumber: “In that dream I’m as old as the mountain”. If this has all been a dream, then the final tender lines, delivered acapella, occupy the final seconds between a blissful snooze and reality. The Fleet Foxes aren’t stagnating; in fact, they are just about to wake up.
Helplessness Blues is not the sound of a band radically reinventing their formula, but Fleet Foxes understand the importance of steady evolution. Like Marge Simpson’s pink Chanel suit in “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield”, if you keep altering and changing something so drastically, eventually the initial beauty is removed, leaving only a mangled representation of what was once so wonderful. Thankfully, Fleet Foxes have changed their sound ever so subtly; where they once were foraging around the forest floor, digging in the soil for the sound of a romanticised past, Helplessness Blues sees the band finally reach the top of Barringer Hill and set off in majestic flight over the sunshine blessed countryside.