Fleet Foxes: ‘Helplessness Blues’ Album Review

courtesy of halfwayhousemusic.com
courtesy of halfwayhousemusic.com

Fleet Foxes is a Seattle-based folk band led by vocalist/guitarist Robin Pecknold, and they have received critical acclaim since their debut. The band seemingly came out of nowhere in 2008, releasing their EP Sun Giant and their self-titled album. Their previous records were filled with whimsical melodies and beautiful lyrics that felt completely fresh, mixing folk with elements of classic rock and hints of baroque. Fleet Foxes comes out sounding like various 60s artist such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but with a new feel to them. Three years after their first album, the band did a follow-up with Helplessness Blues.  This LP is a deeper, more complex collection than their debut album, though not a radical departure.  It ushers in a better sound while Pecknold continues to explore the sounds of the folk genre.

The tone of Helplessness Blues is slightly darker and filled with doubt. They switch their focus from personal relationships and family to take their aim on society and Pecknold’s personal self. Compared to their previous releases that had a sunnier feel to them this album has a darker tone with themes that make it more compelling. Pecknold’s voice still reigns supreme, strengthening the tracks in both lyrics and vocals. He strikes vivid images while he asks his own personal questions, and one feels like they’ve personally experienced these events. The track that the album is named after gives a great example with lyrics about himself, “And now after some thinking / I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / serving something beyond me.” Pecknold goes into this song with a deep personal note, talking about his role in the world and trying to figure out what to do with his life, and this album is full of lyrics like this. They make the listener wonder about life as a whole in such a wonderful, yet somehow sad world. I honestly can’t say if I’ve heard anybody sing about this subject with such honesty, and I was left thinking about Pecknold’s themes hours after listening to the music. Everything feels so extensive and braided perfectly together all the way through except for one song that almost tangles the entire listening experience.

The track called “The Shrine/An Argument” on this LP that is an eight-minute song that switches the tempo, giving Pecknold’s voice an aggressive sound. It was an amazing song that continued to flow through wonderful melodies. Then around six minutes into the song a saxophone comes out of nowhere into the track, blasting a distorted and incoherent tune. It sounds wrong and unnatural in a Fleet Foxes song that, if left alone, could leave you cringing. I know some listeners who’ve heard this album before, who felt that this sound was rewarding. If that’s the case then I guess I didn’t receive this reward because I thought my ears were hurting. The saxophone makes the last half of this song almost unbearable to the point where anytime I listen to this track now I have to skip that half. It is a major flaw that held this album back from being flawless. Besides the saxophone, the only problem I could find on Helplessness Blues is that this album is a lot to take in at once. It sounds like an excuse, but this album can’t be digested in one sitting. So if it sounds like a mess of acoustic sounds at first hearing, I implore you to give this album a listen a few more times; it’s mainly because this album was built so delicately. There were moments in my third listen of this album where I came across a verse that was woven so well into a song that I didn’t even notice it the first time around.

Fleet Foxes hasn’t changed their sound that much since their last album. They still have this full frontal assault when it comes to their approach to music. They play every instrument they can get their hands on, from flutes to pianos to guitars and, yes, even saxophones to ultimately bring about a more bombastic production. But this isn’t a flaw (aside from the saxophone, in my opinion). If anything, the variation helped the album. Between the production and Pecknold’s voice, Fleet Foxes brings out one of the best sophomore albums I’ve seen since Kayne West‘s Late Registration. In the end Helplessness Blues is a sophisticated, well- crafted album with songs that will make you wonder about life and the world. Beautiful and dynamic until the end, Helplessness Blues will keep any music listener enthralled for a long time.