Review Summary: There's nothing genuine in music anymore. Except, of course, when there is.
The first thing you notice about Helplessness Blues
is how much fuller it sounds than Fleet Foxes' acclaimed debut - the instrumentation is beefier, the production is significantly warmer, and the melodies are more forthright. The second thing that stands out is the sadness
that permeates every aspect of the album, from the title to the existentially confused words behind these songs. The bleak lyrics seem at first to be at odds with the expansive and welcoming sonic territory that the record so effortlessly inhabits, but over time, these two distinct aspects reveal themselves to be inexorably connected.
Nowhere is this more true than in the album's title track, easily one of the saddest songs I've heard all year. It opens with Robin Pecknold sounding resigned - or is he content? "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." These four lines, devastating in their simplicity, invite different interpretations - is this a political statement or a personal one? Is his acceptance of his inability to be a special shining star reluctant or willing? Perhaps more importantly, is it genuine? There's an air of uncertainty to these lyrics, emphasized by Pecknold's urgent cries of "I don't know what that will be" and "I don't know who to believe". As the song moves into its gorgeous final section, the music, having been previously moving in a quietly restless direction, settles comfortably into a lilting motif. It's a striking change, at first because of the abrupt change in meter, and later because of the shift in lyrical tone. "If I had an orchard, I'd work till I'm sore," the band sings in the stunning vocal harmonies they've been justifiably praised for. And then Pecknold sings one truly resigned final line: "Someday I'll be like the man on the screen."
At the risk of overstating its significance, "Helplessness Blues" is the album in microcosm. It may not be the record's best
song in conventional terms - its transition from section to section could easily be viewed as ungainly - but it's a near-perfect summation of what this album is really about, and consequently what makes Helplessness Blues
a strong album on the whole. There are moments scattered throughout the record that seem to fit nicely into preexisting stereotypes about sophomore albums - there's the really long song that appears towards the end of the tracklist, and there are the efforts to expand a sound clearly mapped out in the band's debut. Except that said lengthy track, "The Shrine / An Argument" is absolutely beautiful, and the moments where Fleet Foxes really branch out into new musical areas are mostly very successful. Towards the end of "The Shrine / An Argument" there's a gorgeous saxophone solo that recalls the avant-jazz stylings of Colin Stetson; it shouldn't
work well, but it does, and it's heart-stopping. "Bedouin Dress" and "Grown Ocean" also represent notable evolvements of the band's musical aesthetic, and both of them benefit greatly from their more nuanced textures, whether they be impish fiddle lines or simply a much more robust and propulsive approach to rhythm.
Ambition is, of course, also accompanied by a whole new set of risks, and Helplessness Blues
has its fair share of dull patches. But if it feels as if "Lorelai" could stand to be a bit shorter, it's primarily because I'd love for the rapturous middle section of "The Cascades" to go on forever. No, Helplessness Blues
isn't flawless, but it's a distinctly more approachable work than its predecessor, which accomplished the unthinkable feat of being too
pristine. In comparison, this album breathes more, makes more mistakes, and wears its heart on its sleeve. It's human
. And sometimes, that's better than perfection.