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Posts, photos and videos by Chris DeLine, 2004 to 2020

Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues” Review

Published in Blog Archive, Culture Bully. Tags: , .

“I have such a weird relationship with this record,” confessed Fleet Foxes‘ Robin Pecknold in an interview with Stereogum this past February. “The process of making it really took over my life and started affecting my relationships, which in turn affected the record.” Yet while the band’s new album Helplessness Blues is recognizable as a testimony to this personal struggle, it also represents a test for the group as a whole. Faced with the potentially crippling reality that they have created an outrageously high standard for themselves, the band was confronted with a new challenge: Could they create music true to their vision while avoiding disappointing the legions of fans they’ve attracted along the way? The immediate answer was no; or at least not at first.

Fleet Foxes logged plenty of hours in the recording studio in 2009 while working on what would become Helplessness Blues; so many that a 2010 release was a near certainty. But after wrapping on the recording the band re-approached the new music with open ears and decided that it didn’t reflect their vision. Speaking to Uncut magazine, Pecknold recently revealed that he “felt there were things that could be improved.” So they “improved” them; re-recording many of the songs and pushing the album’s pending release date off into the distance.

Now in its final form, Helplessness Blues doesn’t sound entirely all that different from the music that the band has released before it. The LP opens with the energetic alternating picking of “Montezuma,” relying on attractive vocal harmonies that have remained a staple throughout Fleet Foxes’ entire catalog. “The Cascades” flows by as a succinct instrumental. “Someone You’d Admire” loses itself in the combination of Pecknold’s gentle croon and a hollow-sounding acoustic. “Blue Spotted Tail” focuses similarly on cautious picking before bleeding into the rumbling conclusion of “Grown Ocean.” Really, for the most part, it could be argued that little has changed here: Fleet Foxes still work within the gray area of folk-pop, not really pushing any boundaries through the creation of their songs. Yet, despite such basic similarities, Helplessness Blues is constructed with a different purpose than 2008′s Fleet Foxes. Relatives of “Mykonos” and “White Winter Hymnal” are nowhere to be found, but are instead replaced by a number of rich tracks which further reveal the level of craftsmanship employed by the group.

Be it the fiddle which follows the brisk build-up of “Bedouin Dress,” the grandiose pounding rhythm of “Battery Kinzie,” the extended opening vocal harmony which leads into a rollicking, free-spirited breakdown in “The Plains / Bitter Dancer” or the unusual musical disintegration in the conclusion of “Lorelai,” the album offers a variety of moments which keep things from becoming monotonous. There are three tracks which extend this further though, all of which helping to solidify Helplessness Blues‘ unique personality. The spirited pace of “Helplessness Blues” is refreshing, but it’s Pecknold’s lyrics in the song which help raise awareness of the conflict he was struggling with during the album’s creation. “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.” It’s a dilemma nearly everyone faces — the struggle to find one’s place; a search for meaning. “Blue Spotted Tail” is another song which finds the vocalist confronting this struggle by questioning the purpose of existence. These themes of searching for self are woven throughout the album, each acting as a poetic reminder of the personalities behind the music.

“Sim Sala Bim” progresses in a different direction, musically, as the track’s showcase of delicate finger-picking later erupts into a swelling acoustic solo (of sorts); it would fit in seamlessly on Led Zeppelin III. While not a major contrast to the rest of the album, the song offers a wink to a different range of influence that isn’t really associated with Fleet Foxes, suggesting that a fierce desire might swell below the band’s mellow harmonies. To some degree this is picked up once again in “The Shrine / An Argument,” a track which might be best defined as Helplessness Blues‘ aural climax. It continues where “Montezuma” left off with an immediate display of dexterity on the guitar before showing off the first break in Pecknold’s voice — real emotion. Through its eight minutes the song shifts between a variety of different sounds and patterns but — spastic horn outro aside — the segment of the track which leaves a lasting impression is, again, that created by driven acoustics.

After listening to Helplessness Blues it would seem difficult to believe that the album isn’t viewed as a success by the band’s members. It is as much a reflection of personal internal struggle as it is evidence of individual musical progression. But that might have been all it ever needed to be all along: a Fleet Foxes album simply good enough for the band. (That would explain the re-recording, at least.) Which isn’t to say that they might not actually have cared much about disappointing their fans, but they could have rushed the release of the album’s earlier version, or could have easily stripped apart the most successful aspects of Fleet Foxes and manufactured something that would drive fans wild. They could have, but they didn’t. Thankfully for fans, what remains offers the best of both worlds: an album that satisfies the band which doesn’t abuse predictability in meeting a high level of quality. What more could be asked for?