It’s OK to cry. And don’t be alarmed if you’re wearing a gee-golly-gosh smile all the while. Both emotions, however paradoxical as they seem, are just the natural human response to the unique aural alchemy, the lush instrumentation, the melancholic bleat of Robin Pecknold’s tenor, and the great tug of those harmonies – oh, those harmonies – that has made Seattle’s Fleet Foxes unlikely indie superstars. There’s no need to feel shy about giving into your emotions while listening to Helplessness Blues. Why else would you be listening to Fleet Foxes, anyway?
Not known for the breadth of their abilities, Fleet Foxes do one thing and they do it superlatively. The formula that made their 2008 self-titled debut an incantatory chamber folk landmark is evident on their follow-up, only it’s made better. Helplessness Blues is a dazzling and assured record, deeper, darker, and weirder than its predecessor.
As such, Helplessness Blues takes longer to stew and seep in. Fleet Foxes standouts “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” embraced you immediately with their bear-hug melodies. The songs on Helplessness Blues take multiple listens to unwrap. “The Plains/ Bitter Dancer” begins with a grandiose fugal chant, turns into a hushed Simon and Garfunkel ballad, and exits with galloping triumph before you can even begin to digest what you’ve just heard. Even deceptively simple songs, like “Someone You’d Admire” and “Blue Spotted Tail,” pull you in without hurry. Eventually the album transcends the sum of its parts, and what’s left behind is a profoundly stunning song cycle of hope and regret, love and mortality.
“Montezuma,” the album’s opener, contains all of the above in less than four minutes. Pecknold ruminates on death, the great equalizer: “In dearth or in excess, both the slave and the Empress will return to the dirt, I guess, naked as when they came.” He’s older today than his parents were when they gave birth to his elder sister, and what does he have to show for it? Fame and success (“gold teeth and gold jewelry…throw them into the tomb with me”), but no family to accompany him at his deathbed (“I wonder if I’ll see any faces above me, or just cracks in the ceiling”). Pecknold, invoking the “Marines’ Hymn,” fears the lure of the rambling life will leave him adrift, from “Montezuma to Tripoli”. Yet his, and the song’s, great yearning for stability seems to guarantee it.
Helplessness Blues has airy moments, such as the misty mountain hop of “Bedouin Dress” and the rousing jig that closes “Sim Sala Bim,” while “Battery Kinzie” and “Lorelei” are lifted from the morass by the sheer splendor of their forceful melodies. Yet all the flute trills and violin tremolos in the world can’t obscure the fact that Helplessness Blues is for the most part fittingly named. On the album’s title track, Pecknold imagines himself a cog swallowed by society’s collective machine. His deliverance, a simple life of manual labor in an orchard, appears to be out of his grasp. Oh man. Oh my. Oh me.
Whenever critics try to pin down Fleet Foxes’ singular sound, they tend to cite luminaries like Bob Dylan and the Band, Robert Plant, the Beach Boys, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It’s true that the Foxes’ music can recall all of them, especially the vague timelessness of Young’s Harvest and Led Zeppelin’s mystical folk (see Led Zeppelin III). But Fleet Foxes reach back further in time, to Stephen Foster and Aaron Copland (see Appalachian Spring). Helplessness Blues, like Fleet Foxes, is mixture of folk, mountain music, country, and Celtic blues, but never dismiss it as “Americana.” Fleet Foxes make a particular kind of mongrel music, by which I mean music that is thoroughly American. No other band today can take an abstraction that wide and fraught and make it seem so authentic and intimate.
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