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Monday, May 9, 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: A-

The narrative surrounding the second album from Seattle folk rockers Fleet Foxes has been that it is a lot more dark and pessimistic. Frontman Robin Pecknold opens the album with this depressing contemplation: “So now that I’m older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” and elsewhere he speaks of life and love with a sense of futility that penetrates each of the songs on Helplessness Blues down to their very hooks. The album is called Helplessness Blues after all, a title that implies accepting and reveling in defeat, perhaps an admission by the group that they could not overcome an inevitable sophomore slump coming off of such a critically acclaimed album as their self-titled debut.

However, look closer and this impression of Helplessness Blues holds little water. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that this is the most optimistic album I’ve heard all year. While it is true that Robin Pecknold sings that first line in “Montezuma,” he does not sing it with the heavy-handedness that one would assume. Pecknold sings the line with the same innocent tenor that has become characteristic of his group, and this is not unintentional. “Oh man what I used to be,” goes the chorus of that same track, in which Pecknold sings of disappointments that may come with his death. “Oh man oh my oh me.” While the song is no positivity bender, the lyrics are treated differently than they would let on in text. That chorus makes Pecknold’s ruminations sound like abstract thoughts as opposed to an organized front of dejection. He sees these events unfolding as curiosities, but laughs them off with a playful refrain that seems to chalk it all up to the flaws of life, because, after all, every person has felt helpless at some point in their lives. In this way, Pecknold seems to answer his own question posed by that first line, saying that his life has not turned out better or worse than that of his parents’ but just different. It’s an interesting message and one that carries on throughout Helplessness Blues.

The title track similarly deceives in its worldview. “I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / A snowflake, distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see,” Pecknold sings with only an acoustic guitar supporting him. The line seems to exemplify the diminishing returns of age that can come with a person entering their mid-20’s, but Pecknold goes on. “And now after some thinkin’ / I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some kind of machinery / Serving something beyond me.” Again, Pecknold does concede a loss in individuality, an emotionally crippling realization, but he instead focuses that hopelessness into a goal that is different, not necessarily worse but perhaps even better. The song then becomes a beacon of hope in the way that it suggests the presence of countless opportunities of which we may be unaware. It builds, adding harmonies and instrumentation, before Pecknold has a confident enough footing to reveal his mission statement, channeling what could have been lost ambition into a revelation, making for the album’s clear highlight. “What good is it to sing helplessness blues?” he asks. “Why should I wait for anyone else?”

And yet this is the genius of Robin Pecknold as a centerpiece. His voice is nasally and often defaults to an unassuming intonation that blends wonderfully with Fleet Foxes’s trademark group harmonies, but his lyrics are so clearly thought out for their meaning and effectiveness that it’s an extra surprise the guy sings beautifully, because Helplessness Blues could be a spoken word album and still make me cry. In “Blue Spotted Tail,” he plays that pessimism fake-out trick expertly, asking rhetorical questions with his acoustic like “Why is life made only for an end? Why do I do all this waiting then?” around what feels like the most serene campfire you could imagine. Like in “Mykonos,” in my opinion their best song, Fleet Foxes are greatest when they transcend the Appalachian folk archetype they have clearly mastered, and such is the double-take-inducing moment in “The Shrine / An Argument” when Pecknold howls in nearly empty space. Helplessness Blues consolidates Pecknold’s power as one of the most shyly brilliant songwriters of the new decade, a savant with just enough humor to place his talents right up there with the folk rock luminaries of which he pays homage.

Musically, Helplessness Blues does not stray far from the “play every folk subgenre possible in the span of fifty minutes” style that the group established with their debut album. Fans of that sound need not worry that the group has evolved so much that they stretch themselves thin; with the exception of a diminishing in group harmonies in exchange for a more prominent Pecknold (With which I’m sure you notice I take no umbrage), the production and arrangements are as rich and grassy as ever. “The Cascades” is a civil Celtic instrumental and “Sim Sala Bim” descends into an acoustic jamboree decorated with mandolin frills, probably the best musical moment on the album. As their backslashes would suggest, “The Shrine / An Argument” and “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” are two-part songs, and while the latter is mainly a vocal introduction that transitions into the main tune, the former is an 8-minute behemoth, ebbing and flowing from sinister acoustics to grouped thumps to an abrupt comedown that fades out in a cacophony of brass. And to think that I’m referring to a song by a band that nobody would bat an eyelash to say were indie folk. What’s great about Fleet Foxes is that they are still Hell bent on pushing the envelop in a genre that is hardly known for it.

I’ve mentioned a lot here, but Helplessness Blues houses many more examples of fantastic songwriting and impeccable vocals that may prove to be your personal album favorites and will justify my obvious man crush on Robin Pecknold. Aside from maybe a couple boring transitional instrumentals and the forced a capella vocals that try to make “Grown Unknown” a transcendent album closer, the group’s newest is more mature if not quite as good as their debut album. But if the group’s philosophy as conveyed by Pecknold’s lyrics are any indication, Helplessness Blues is just the beginning of Fleet Foxes’s journey as a restlessly expansive group into the new decade. It may not be better, it may not be worse, but here’s hoping it’s always different. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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