Helplessness Blues is the newest album from Fleet Foxes, the folk group out of Seattle that helped put church reverbs, four-part harmony, and old-timey production back on the map with their self-titled debut release in 2009. Back in 2009 I think it was easy for some people to see Fleet Foxes as just another flannel-wearing, beard-growing, group of hipsters pretending like they actually had been alive in the 60s. However, there was always something special about these guys to me. Despite their playfully escapist lyrics about following packs of animals through the forest and singing to meadowlarks, there was a sense of youthful innocence about the whole thing that was delightfully refreshing. For the most part, Helplessness Blues continues a lot of those same vibes and keeps plenty of the band's signature free-loving folk pop around. However, it is also a decisively darker and more experimental album and finds the band confronting some their youthful idealism with harsh doses of reality and doubt.
The band sets the stage of the album with the opening track "Montezuma", something of an understated way to start an album of such huge proportions. Lead singer and songwriter, Robin Peckinfold, starts out the album singing about how quickly life has passed him by as a young adult: "So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?" Later on, the song even has him looking toward his own grave and simultaneously proving how much he has matured as a lyricist: "In dirth or excess, both the slave and empress/Will return to the dirt I guess, naked as they came/I wonder if I'll see any faces above me/Or just cracks in the ceiling, nobody else to blame".
Most of the album seems to revolve around the coming-of-age theme of aging and understanding your place in the world, highlighted by the centerpiece of the album: the title track. Although the track has been out for quite some time, I hesitate to not bring up the incredibly strong line thats worth the price of admission on its own: "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". Peckinfold seems to have stumbled upon what feels like a manifesto for the twentysomething generation, him being only 25 years old himself. Honestly, I don't know many people around that age that aren't asking similar questions of themselves these days. Having so concisely spoken for their generation, in my mind the Fleet Foxes deserve the highest of lyrical accolades.
Working together in great harmony, the album's conceptual ideas about youth and searching for identity help push the album outside the familiar bounds of pop song structures. Because of this emphasis on looser or more experimental song structures, the songs here end up having much more room for a larger dynamic range and more interesting instrumentation. The song "Sim Sala Bim", for example, goes from a part of the song that is packed to the sonic brim with tremolo strings buzzing, three part harmonies, and what feels like an entire band of guitar strummers, to a single, gentle acoustic guitar and Peckinfold's almost whispered vocals. The songs with multiple sections like the 3-part, 8-minute long, "The Shrine / An Argument", open up the exploratory song structures even more. "The Shrine / An Argument" is a particularly experimental track with its first half exploring some of the more spine-tingling, harsher tones of Peckinfold's voice and its ending erupting in a strange interruption of Colin Stetson going at it on a bass clarinet. Despite how weird that sounds, as the album ebbs and flows with multiple instrumental tracks and multiple part songs, you'll find a lot of places to get lost in the spacious auditory environment that Fleet Foxes have crafted.
There is a lot to say about this album, but so far, the more I listen to it the more I am getting out of it. Whether its the simple, effect-free (no reverb to be heard!) track "Blue Spotted Tail" or the sprawling, Jonsi-esque, epic of an album closer "Grown Ocean", I've found myself constantly finding reasons to return to almost every single one of these tracks. And while not being nearly as perfectly calculated and rounded as the band's first album, I think Helplessness Blues' ability to be just the opposite has resonated with me both musically and lyrically in a way that that the debut album just couldn't have. There is a greater sense of risk here and for the most part, it really pays off. Most importantly though, Helplessness Blues does a great job of tossing aside any speculations that the Fleet Foxes might have been merely a passing trend. These guys are here to stay.
Fleet Foxes - Grown Ocean