Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Indie-folk darlings Fleet Foxes shot to fame in 2008 with the release of their highly acclaimed self-titled debut album. Their vocal harmonies and organic, grassroots lyrics and music that define the band were a unique addition to the prevailing music scene. With the release of their follow up, Helplessness Blues, the band faces the challenge of dealing with their fame and living up to the high bar they already set. With a new level of accessibility, they manage to not only reach this bar, but even surpass it.
All across the board, the band displays a previously unseen level of confidence. Singer Robin Pecknold steps more into the spotlight, not shying behind the backup harmonies, though fans of these harmonies should know that they are still adequately present. The music has much more character, with stronger melodies and more varied instrumentation, such as the violins of “Bedouin Dress” or the effective flutes on “Lorelai”. There is also more experimentation in the musicianship, tending away from the traditional verse-chorus structure, especially in its two-part songs, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/An Argument”.
More important than all of these new strides, however, is the improvement in the lyrics. The band’s slice of Americana on their debut was refreshing, but as enjoyable as the imagery and stories were, the lyrics rarely felt deep or relatable. Their success prevents them from revisiting many of these themes, but they have been supplanted with charming, universal musings and beautifully touching tales of love. In an album packed full of high points, the lyrics are the biggest of them.
“Sim Sala Bim” is an excellent combination of all of these developments. It starts with a calm description of a dream, but vanishes with a swelling burst of strings, leading to the questions, “What makes me love you despite the reservations? What do I see in your eyes besides my reflection hanging high? Are you off somewhere reciting incantations, ‘Sim Sala Bim’ on your tongue?” This climax gives way to a relaxing denouement, the same mood as the beginning. A review of The Avett Brothers’ most recent album said that the reviewer didn’t want to listen to it at work for fear of being forced to tears. In this song and several others on Blues, the threat is just as present.
Several other songs employ similarly engaging song structures. “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” builds with the band’s trademark cascading vocal waves, but later evolves into a sound reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel. “The Shrine/An Argument” has four movements. Hearing the first, with its surprisingly racing intro and Pecknold’s intense, haunting vocal dynamics, listeners may find it difficult to top, but the tonally darker second movement certainly gives it a run for its money. The blatantly ugly and chaotic woodwind outro is the sole weak part on the entire album.
Although not listed as a two-part song, the titular track is perhaps the most dichotomous. The musically and lyrically reflective second half answers the helplessness blues proposed in the first. Deep, catchy, musically interesting, and five minutes of nirvana in general, it stands out as a strong contender for track of the year.
With such high strengths, one might expect that other songs suffer in comparison, but nearly every single track holds its own even in such great company. The mildly swinging “Bedouin Dress” is a fun jaunt down memory lane. “Lorelai” makes excellent use of its bouncing ¾ time with an exceedingly simple, yet beautiful melody. Instrumentals occasionally feel like wasted tracks, but even “The Cascades” is a highly pleasurable journey. Drummer Josh Tillman takes center stage driving closer “Grown Ocean,” which effectively sums up the experience of the entire album.
The only track that doesn’t compare with the rest is “Blue Spotted Tail.” Although it has a poetic structure similar to “Someone You’d Admire,” “Tail” fails unlike “Admire” because its lyrics go slightly too far over the philosophical deep end. While “Why in the night sky are the lights hung? Why is the Earth moving ‘round the sun, floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one?” may seem like deep lyrics, they feel out of place on the album and ultimately boil down to meaningless passing thoughts.
“Tail” aside, the album is packed with strong songs and even stronger songs. I felt that I didn’t appreciate their debut as much as everyone else, but such is not the case with Helplessness Blues. The songs have more personality and the lyrics are greater than I could have expected. Just as their debut was oft-pegged for album of the year, Blues is a worthy follow up already in contention for the title this year.
Standout Tracks: “Sim Sala Bim”, “Helplessness Blues”, and “Lorelai”