In Brief: You’ll need to be a little more patient with it, but ultimately, Helplessness Blues is another breathtaking accomplishment for this talented band.
I really, really hate it when artists start to second-guess themselves after becoming a breakout success. There’s a mentality among some segments of the indie music world that once it becomes popular, the music is no longer good or genuine. It’s not that I don’t empathize with how frustrating it can be when your little best kept secret gets out and suddenly you don’t seem as cutting edge as you used to for liking a particular band. And I’ve certainly seen a lot of good intentions gone horribly awry when a band used to toiling in obscurity suddenly hits it big and decides, “Hey, we’ll rack up a lot more hits if we keep trying to imitate whatever the masses seemed to like the first time we did it.” But you know, sometimes a band becomes popular – or at least achieves a lot of critical acclaim – simply by being themselves, with no need to consciously emulate (or in some cases, even be aware of) whatever happens to be trendy at the moment. So it sort of bugs when that same band, faced with the daunting task of delivering a follow-up record, decides to ditch the sound that made them popular in the first place because of some superstitious worry that it’s gonna offend some indie rock demigod or whatever.
I had thought for a while that this was gonna happen to Fleet Foxes, the group that won my heart (and the hearts of a great many critics) so effortlessly with their breathtakingly crafted debut album back in 2008. Through a combination of a largely unplugged acoustic rock sound, drop-dead gorgeous vocal melodies, intricate yet unfussy arrangements, and a huge tip of the head to several long-lost decades (and perhaps even a few centuries) of folk music, their woodsy and somewhat spontaneous approach captured the attention of many listeners, bridging the gap between those who like their music low-fi and with relatively little polish, and those who like it dripping with rich harmonies. So you can imagine my dismay when, in various interviews and Facebook updates concerning the status of their long-awaited sophomore album, frontman Robin Pecknold seemed to continually malign the “poppy” feel of their first album, stating an urge to make the second album “more groove-based” and to record it within a much shorter time frame, leaving in a lot of the rough-edges and, to put it as he did, “f*ck-ups”. My first thought: Why would you want to do that intentionally when your band makes such a beautiful sound that already seems to flow from them so organically and spontaneously? The debut had plenty of moments where the songs switched gears, seemingly into little unplanned jams or bits of instrumental noodling. And for all of the pretty harmonizing, it never felt sterile – the raw emotion behind so many of those songs wasn’t diminished one bit by the sonic clarity or the fact that everyone was on-key. Why fix what wasn’t broken? To make a long story short, I decided all of this was good reason to approach Helplessness Blues with guarded expectations.
As it turns out, I had nothing to fear. From the first few bars of vocal harmony that sneak into the first track, all the way through to an unexpectedly rousing finale, Helplessness Blues feels like a joyous reunion with dearly-missed old friends. I wouldn’t say that it uses the band’s debut as a template and simply repeats the process. The overall sound and style are the same, but there are a few places where the overall mix is more subdued, the colors a bit more faded as if to reflect the passage of time, or where the band even gets a bit avant-garde. Their songwriting process seems to have expanded on their occasional habit of letting songs twist and turn in unexpected direction, structurally speaking, like a majestic tree whose growth has been gradually reshaped by wind and weather conditions. That makes the music a tad more complex, so it’s a little trickier to guess what the obvious “singles” would be. But I’d say that with one exception, the surprises are subtle, and you’ll never scratch your head wondering if it’s still the same band. As sophomore records go, this one treads the tightrope quite well so that it never feels quiet like a safe retread of their old stuff, but it also isn’t a disorientingly weird, self-conscious attempt at reinvention for the sake of wowing critics. Fleet Foxes does what they do best, just with the benefit of a few year’s experience to put a few new tricks in their arsenal. The appeal probably won’t be as immediate as it was on their debut, but Helplessness Blues is a worthy follow-up, aiming for and reaching the same five-star heights as its predecessor. This group has yet to make any serious missteps, and for that I’m grateful.
Things open on a bit of a maudlin note, with Pecknold’s voice and a lone, undistorted electric guitar, mourning the fact that he’s aged beyond the point where his mother started to have children, and seems to have nothing to show for it. It’s a sad song about the ephemeral nature of life, I guess – wondering if you’ll have loved ones to surround you and give your life some meaning as you one day prepare to exit this world. What could be depressing turns quite lovely instead as soon as the other guys join in on backing vocals – they know when to let the song be modest and intimate, and when to break in with the overwhelming swell of their impeccable harmonies. It’s the instruments and vocals that really shine here – the lyrics, while capable, occasionally get stuck in an overly simplistic approach, particularly when the chorus leans on a repeated lament of “Oh man, what I used to be/Oh man, oh my, oh me.”
2. Bedouin Dress
This is the song that, more than any on the album, sticks in my head quite immediately. It’s hard not to fall in love with its swaying dance of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, weaving a wandering melody that seems to evoke memories of a time and place long ago. Maybe even a fictional place that only exists in the singer’s mind, since Robin alludes to “One day at Innisfree”, and Wikipedia tells me that Innisfree is actually a fictional Irish village (or perhaps a real Albertan one). The music pays tribute to both its near Eastern and Irish sources of inspiration, with the kind of melody you could possibly charm snakes with, and a slight hint of Celtic flair as fond memories and heavy regrets swirl together, Robin recalling a beautiful maiden in “a geometric patterned dress” whom he saw passing him by on the street in that magical place. In true Fleet Foxes fashion, the rhythm lets up momentarily for a few brief acapella breaks, which are charming even if they’re saying little more than clumsily-worded phrases: “One day, that’s mine there.” It sounds so much nicer when you elongate all the vowels.
3. Sim Sala Bim
The delicate fingerpicking that opens this song, and the gorgeous vocal refrain that it soon blossoms into, remind me of the pastoral beauty of “English House”, one of my favorite songs by the Foxes. The mandolin is once again at the forefront, and a string section quivers, lying in wait for the perfect moment to strike. This all sounds like it’s going to develop into an epic tale of a restless man journeying through mystic foreign lands, up until about the midpoint of the song when it very suddenly collapses into some rather disjointed, quiet vocals lines from Robin: “Remember when you had me cut your hair?/Call me Delilah, then I wouldn’t care.” This seems to be a turning point for the story as it leads rather abruptly into a forceful and spirited acoustic guitar breakdown, the guys strumming and picking as if their lives depended on it, but then this collapses as well into some barely audible noodling around on a single guitar, the song fizzling out before you can figure out what the hell happened. There’s tons of talent on display here, and it’s a thrilling song to listen to, and yet it seems to lack a bit of direction, like they all just spontaneously decided to drop what they were doing in the middle of it and just jam for a minute or so.
4. Battery Kinzie
The album’s most compact song feels like a kissing cousin to the band’s most well-known single, “White Winter Hymnal”, minus the singing in rounds, I guess. The constant, upbeat strum and pounding piano and percussion give it a similar mood, as do the gorgeous harmonies as the guys wail: “Wide-eyed walker, do not wander/Do not wander through the dawn.” The lyrics are somewhat surreal, and definitely wide open for interpretation, so I won’t really hazard a guess about what this wanderer’s quest might be. I enjoy this one, but I feel like I’m just getting into the ride when it comes to a rather modest end.
5. The Plains / Bitter Dancer
The dual title and 6-minute run time are definitely trying to tell you something – namely, that this is going to be one of Fleet Foxes’ more progressive tracks, and that it’s gonna take a lot of detours. I like this kind of approach when there’s enough time to really do it justice (as opposed to cramming a lot of musical ideas into a relatively short amount of time like “Sim Sala Bim” did). The best I can figure is that “The Plains” is the opening instrumental portion, which loops its despairing, descending melody over and over until simple guitar melodies and wordless vocals are intertwined in dizzying fashion, making it sound like there are easily twice as many people playing as the band actually counts among its members. This transitions into a slower, more weary verse, making effective use of minor key as a man laments the loss of his wandering son. (People sure do a lot of wandering in Fleet Foxes songs, I just realized.) A flute adds to the unstuck-in-time feeling of the song and the overall melancholy mood, until the track hits an acapella bridge that leads us into another upbeat jam session with the following words: “At arm’s length, I will hold you there.” One gets the feeling that there’s a lot more to the story than the economically chosen words are actually saying, but this performance is packed with so much longing, so much pathos that it’s hard to nitpick the lack of details. Picture an afternoon spent lost in a thick, foreboding forest, only to suddenly discover that you’re being chased by armed men on horseback, and that’ll give you an idea of what it feels like to listen to this one.
6. Helplessness Blues
Don’t let the track title fool you – this is actually one of the album’s most upbeat songs. If not overly joyous, it least expresses an acceptance with its situation, offering a bit of a breather from the heavier material surrounding it. The lyrics are some of Pecknold’s most straightforward, as he compares the idealistic virtue of being “a snowflake unique among snowflakes” to his more pragmatic desire to be “a functioning cog in some great machine, serving something beyond me”. The band gets into just about as much of an up-tempo frenzy as you can while hurriedly strumming acoustic guitars, yet the song has its quieter moments, particularly when the song pulls a transition midway through that echoes “Ragged Wood” (my very favorite Fleet Foxes track), switching up the rhythm from simple 4/4 to meandering 6/8, complete with space for some small bits of electric guitar soloing. It’s the way all the colors play against each other that gives this song its strength, even if you’re tempted to be annoyed that it gave you a great hook and then took it away only to pine slowly about wanting to have an orchard and being like the man on the screen, and… OK, so this song isn’t exactly winning me over with its clunky analogies. Perhaps these guys are better off hinting at the meaning of their songs rather than letting the lyrics fully explain themselves.
7. The Cascades
Apparently making track #7 an instrumental is going to become a Fleet Foxes tradition. (Though “Heard Them Stirring” technically had vocals… just no words.) This one, though extremely brief at two minutes, does the mountain range that looms behind the band’s native Seattle great justice, with all sorts of fingerpicked notes from the guitar and mandolin raining down in a gorgeous crescendo of sound, evoking the imagery of a gentle rain or fog blanketing the lush green mountains of Washington. When it hits its climax and then gradually backs off into silence, I find myself wishing they could take it around for another cycle, perhaps improvising on it more. It’s such a lovely little snippet of inspired instrumentation that deserves further development.
Speaking of “Heard Them Stirring”, I’m reminded of that track once again as the seeming multitude of harmony vocals at the beginning of this song ascends toward the heavens, each of them sounding like it’s striving to be heard over the other. Quite differently from that or most other Fleet Foxes songs, however, this one is quite percussion-driven, with the constant “thump-clack-clack” of the drums driving its lovelorn waltz. It seemed some beautiful women loved the protagonist of this song for a short time, and then grew tired of him and moved on. “I was old news to you then”, Robin pines as he tries to shake off old dreams and memories of her. This song allows some room for instrumental noodling, with the electric guitar and what sounds like a toy piano or glockenspiel playing about in the background, but unlike many others on the album, it commits to its rhythm and its primary refrain, carrying them all the way through. I wouldn’t want every Fleet Foxes song to fit a mold, but for this track, it’s quite refreshing.
9. Someone You’d Admire
Some of the best moments on the Foxes’ debut record were when the band backed off and just let Robin and his guitar do their thing, perhaps with Skyler Skjelset joining in to add some subtle but lovely fingerpicking. “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” and “Oliver James” were good examples from this. Then again, they had other songs that could get a bit too sparse using this approach, most notably “Innocent Son”. I’d put this song into the latter category. It seems to feature at least two guitars and two vocalists, but the way it’s performed feels a bit like an unfinished demo, with the strumming kept simple and the vocal melody being somewhat repetitive. It feels like it needs more sonic detail to give it a third dimension – and I don’t mean to suggest that the band should overwhelm their songs with all sorts of bells and whistles or anything. It’s just that this one feels a bit undercooked. Lyrics are somewhat cryptic here, giving me the general impression of a man’s conflict with himself, as if he had two personalities: “One of them wants only to be someone you’d admire/One would as soon just throw you on the fire.” An interesting idea that probably could have blossomed into a fascinating song, if not for the band’s insistence on recording some of these in one go and letting the results fall wherever they may.
10. The Shrine / An Argument
Now here’s a song that feels fully realized. Scratch that, it goes above and beyond the call of duty in that department. Sprawling out to eight minutes, this is Fleet Foxes’ most complicated – and possibly most epic – track thus far. It’s the kind of thing I love to get lost in, feeling like three distinct song segments that each provide the right momentum to lead gracefully into the next. The first “segment” is set against a lush, fast arpeggio that evokes the feeling of running water as those gorgeous triplet notes fly by. Robin sets the scene, walking through an orchard just after dawn, and coming across an old stone fountain, expressing skepticism at people’s belief that tossing money in will somehow grant their wishes, but deciding to make an exception and part with a coin himself just to see if it will bring back a loved one whom he misses dearly. His voice, normally one that rings out with clarity, hits a few surprisingly gritty notes where you can almost feel the emotion that he’s fighting to swallow. These musings lead into the middle section of the song, and if this were a movie, this would be where it cuts to the car chase (or perhaps horse chase, in this case), with the percussion kicking in and the guitars once again strumming like their lives depended on it. The sunlight is harsher now, the memories more bitter, and he seems to regret the wish, longing to rid himself of the memories as he finds himself “in the ocean, washing off my name from your throat.” This segment ends on a tense note, leading us into the somber, slow melody of the final act. Here, he seems glad to have exorcised her memory, and he’s glad to have the place all to himself: “Green apples hang from my tree/They belong only to me.” This apple orchard setting seems to recall the title track, while another mention of “Innisfree” hearkens back to “Bedouin Dress”, and it’s as if the more innocent man in both songs eventually got the girl and the farm he wanted, only to realize none of it made him happy. A heavy feeling of loss hangs over the song, a few stringed instruments holding their notes but starting to feel as if they are melting in the sun, and it’s the sort of thing you might be tempted to start dozing off to, until OHMYBLUEYONDERSWHATISTHATRACKET?!?!! With absolutely no warning, a horn section comes barging into the song, blurting and bleating and playing absolutely nothing on key or in rhythm, as if the group had suddenly tossed one of their mics into the studio next door, where an avant-garde jazz album was being recorded. It’s a startling moment that only the second part of the title, “An Argument”, could hope to make sense of – as if to say that beautiful, sun-drenched setting where this man now lives alone is still haunted by the harsh memories of fights a couple once had there – things that should never happen in such heavenly places.
11. Blue Spotted Tail
Also an apparent Fleet Foxes tradition in the making: Naming the second-to-last track after something blue. Though this ain’t no “Blue Ridge Mountains” – that track being a thrilling climax that also ranks among my favorite Foxes songs. This one feels like the microphone caught Robin in a candid moment, softly picking out a melody and humming existential questions about city lights and the night sky to himself, unaware that he was being recorded. It’s mixed so low that the song nearly seems to vanish at times, and while for some that might add to the feeling of intimacy, I prefer the “Oliver James” approach – still very stripped down, but mixed with more care for clarity. Other listeners’ mileage will vary, since I know some of Fleet Foxes’ appeal in the indie music world is exactly because they don’t fuss over making their music the most high-fidelity thing you could possibly hear. But yeah, I prefer the larger-than-life stuff to the stripped-down stuff on this album.
12. Grown Ocean
Thankfully (and quite surprisingly), the album ends on a larger than life note, saving the closest thing to a “rocker” for the finale, allowing Joshua Tillman‘s thundering toms to set the pace for another driving, strum-heavy performance that I could just as easily imagine as the opening number at one of their concerts. (These guys are on my “Bands to See Before I Die” list, BTW.) As Pecknold sings of a dream where he’s as old as the landscape itself, the world’s landscape being all of his own children, the group comes to a triumphant crescendo, cymbals crashing and flutes trilling, almost suggesting the euphoric heights of a performance by The Polyphonic Spree. (But with way better vocals.) It’s a rousing tune that seems to address the worries and loss that have lingered with us from the opening chords of “Montezuma” and all throughout the album, as if to say “I will not grow old in vain. I will attain all of the things I dream of.” The only baffling aspect of this song is how it ends, because just where you’d expect a final flourish, the group once again subverts expectations by veering off into another one off their acapella breaks, tacking on a few final words as if they wouldn’t otherwise fit into the song: “Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me/I will wake one day, don’t delay me/Wide-eyed leaver, always going.” I’m on the edge of my seat there, expecting a nonexistent fourth line to complete the thought… but that’s the end. As if to say that the entire album’s been spent wandering, and it ends with wandering, yet not all who wander are lost.
While I think this is an excellent album and I’ve graded it as such, I will admit that I can detect some of the seams in this band’s songwriting process, and that some of these songs which sound thrilling on the surface can feel a bit like they’re holding something back or trying to dodge uncertainty about how to best complete themselves, when examined more closely. I still feel confident awarding the full five stars because to me, those flaws aren’t too big of a deal. Others may find them frustrating, perhaps to the point where the songs don’t sink in as readily as those on the band’s debut. I will admit that it took a while before I could figure out where the standout songs were on this disc, and even identifying them, I’d be hard pressed to say that any are as monumentally exciting to my ears as a “Ragged Wood”, and “English House”, or a “Blue Ridge Mountains”. Others may come looking for a “White Winter Hymnal” and be similarly baffled. Just stick with it. The complexity of Helplessness Blues is rewarding in its own way. And as long as this band doesn’t get too much into the habit of second-guessing their own success, I can see a long and storied career ahead of them.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bedouin Dress $2
Sim Sala Bim $1
Battery Kinzie $1
The Plains / Bitter Dancer $2
Helplessness Blues $1.50
The Cascades $1
Someone You’d Admire $.50
The Shrine / An Argument $2
Blue Spotted Tail $.50
Grown Ocean $1.50
Robin Pecknold: Lead vocals, guitar
Skyler Skjelset: Lead guitar, mandolin
Christian Wargo: Bass, backing vocals
Casey Wescott: Keyboards, mandolin, backing vocals
Joshua Tillman: Drums, backing vocals
Morgan Henderson: Various instruments
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.