Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (2011)
by Jay Mattson
If you asked me about a year ago if I’d want to review the sophomore effort from the Portland-based Fleet Foxes, I’d have told you, “Absolutely not.” Simply put, I was ‘over’ Fleet Foxes. The over-saturation of their self-titled debut was too much for me, and I came to resent the album in a sense. Fleet Foxes is a fantastic album, and it’s for this reason that I stopped listening to it before I came to hate it.
When I heard that these Seattle-based Foxes had a new album coming out, I was more than skeptical. I wouldn’t listen to the first single, “Helplessness Blues”, for some time. Upon my eventual hearing of it, I found it pompous and detached from their initial aim. This is the album review that smacks down my preconceptions.
Much like what The Strokes did with Room on Fire back in 2003, Fleet Foxes have created a nearly flawless second album that sounds largely the same while still managing to be a completely new experience. To continue The Strokes analogy, critics will likely say that this sounds too much like the first.
From the start of the album, “Helplessness Blues” succeeds by recreating the experience of listening to the original. It’s like listening to this band for the first time all over again. The opening track, “Montezuma”, starts with an unsuspecting acoustic strum, Robin Pecknold’s signature vocals not far behind. And like the best tracks from Fleet Foxes, a background chorus provides an excellent foil to Pecknold’s higher pitch.
“Battery Kinzie” was the second single released for Helplessness Blues, and for good reason. It’s a display of what Fleet Foxes do best: combine folk music with sweeping baroque arrangements and choral instruments. It has worked for many bands, but Pecknold and Company are more in-tune with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty than Zach Condon or Arcade Fire. Things slow down a bit with “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”, a track that builds up for the first 3 ½ minutes before breaking down into a multi-vocal verse led by a marching snare and seductive flute.
I still hold that “Helplessness Blues” is the weakest track. Though the lyrics are clever and the melody is catchy, it sounds pretentious and over-thought; it’s almost as if the band was trying to fuse all the different parts of their sound that were praised in the past, to create a weird Frankenstein song that sounds patched together rather than an invigorating expression of their style. The relative weakness of “Helplessness” is almost forgiven for “The Cascades”, which is in the running for being my favorite track on this album, even being a purely instrumental song.
Instrumentals are often considered inferior to songs that include lyrics. Often, I find that I connect more with the music of a song than the lyrics of which are often personal for the writer. Fleet Foxes do well in this regard, as they often find a perfect balance between the movement of the instrumentals against the vocal work by Pecknold and the chorus. But on instrumentals like “The Cascades”, we can hear a purely sonic experience of Fleet Foxes, and it’s impressive, to say the least.
Old school Fleet Foxes again comes out in abundance on “Lorelai”, a song that feels it should be played by mystical creatures in a thicket deep within a magical forest. But it also sounds natural, like a natural component of your existing music collection.
“The Shrine / An Argument” takes prize as the longest and most sweeping track on Helplessness Blues. Unlike most of Fleet Foxes’ material, it highlights a slightly more unrestrained Robin Pecknold who allows his vocal range to be expressive beyond sultry folk whisperings. This song takes a turn for the better as it switches gears from “The Shrine” to “An Argument”, a movement introduced by Fleet Foxes taking more risks. Even Pecknold sounds harsher than usual. This movement is excellent, and it’s a fantastic example of the band’s growth since 2008. The third movement is the most interesting, though, and the most eerily haunting. Like the second, this third movement features a lot of new sounds for Fleet Foxes, many of which don’t work as well as the ones found in the second movement. Random brass-play and a humming melody sound more like b-sides to a Man Man record than an actual track on a Fleet Foxes album. To come full circle, “Grown Ocean” is the second weak song on Helplessness Blues, a song stuffed with stylistic panache, and grandeur to spare.
Lightning has indeed struck twice for Fleet Foxes, a band who has succeeded in creating two stellar achievements which are simultaneously similar and unique. Helplessness Blues presents Fleet Foxes at their creative best. Instead of churning out a dismal second album one year after the first (see jj no. 2 & no. 3), Fleet Foxes took their time to craft a marvelous follow-up and succeeded in so many ways.