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Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

When it comes to pastoral indie-folk, it sometimes feels like the genre has overplayed its hand.  Acoustic guitars, lumberjack cologne — we get it, alright?  Everyone wants to be the next Simon & Garfunkel, and by 2019, we’re a little bit leery every time a group of neckbeards comes stumbling out of the woods.  But not only are Fleet Foxes the exception to that rule, they’re also arguably the band that set the standard for folk music during the 2010’s.  Strictly from an aesthetic standpoint, no other group has as successfully captured that rich, earthy, rural vibe.  In other words, this is the art that all those other bands aspire for.

Fleet Foxes’ discography has been the model of consistency (three LP’s spaced out over nine years, each one critically acclaimed), so selecting a definitive standout track is a difficult undertaking.  2017’s Crack-Up flourished thanks to increased piano/classical elements, and a three-part epic like “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” would have been just as fitting here.  However, the simple beauty of “Helplessness Blues” represents this band better.  To most fans, their 2011 offering Helplessness Blues was the band in peak form, with the title track serving as its heartfelt mantra.  The song exists as little more than a surging wave of acoustic guitars, accompanied by frontman Robin Pecknold’s thoughtful ruminations which are sung with the urgency of a man who can’t see what’s waiting for him around the corner: “And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me / But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be…I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see.

It’d later come to surface (around the time of Crack-Up) that Pecknold was suffering from severe social anxiety, unsure of what to do with himself or the success of the band.  In hindsight it’s clearer (“If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see, of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak“), but for the better part of the six years between Helplessness Blues and its 2017 successor, Pecknold felt compelled to put the band on hold and enroll in twentieth century art and literature at Columbia University. By diving back into academia, he effectively removed himself from the source of his anxiety, allowing him to re-assess his own goals in life and eventually come back with a fresh perspective and newfound artistic vision.

What makes “Helplessness Blues” such a special track is that it captures that moment of conflict; that very real struggle that so many young adults are faced with coming out of high school or college.  The weight of your entire future stares you down, and it can be very easy to feel like you have to have everything figured out, immediately.  “Helplessness Blues” offers reassurance and guidance, suggesting that you take a deep breath and think about all of your options.  It’s fine not to know all of the answers, and it’s perfectly acceptable to say I’ll get back to you soon as you retreat for a while.  After all, it worked out quite well for Pecknold.

Has an identity crisis ever been so eloquently expressed, or so logically dealt with?

Read about more from this decade:

Titus Andronicus – “A More Perfect Union”

Sufjan Stevens – “Impossible Soul”

mewithoutYou – “Rainbow Signs”

The Dillinger Escape Plan – “Farewell, Mona Lisa”

Trophy Scars – “Qeres”

This was another tough one, this band has so many great songs. I'm not ruling out circling back to them, maybe for "Grown Ocean" or "Third of May" or one of their many other gems.

Only know the Dillinger song but it slays.

This was really was the most important song of my high school days, you've captured it perfectly.

nice, thank you

this was right after I graduated college so that's why the message hit me so hard

not to mention that for being so basic, it's literally a perfect song

never tried fleet foxes

just looked at your ratings and I think you're in for a treat

Ooh another one of my favorite live performances. I can see why you chose this, it's one of their best simpler songs though I really adore their larger multi-part tracks and would've thought one of them would place over this. Great mix of songs so far

Helplessness Blues and Impossible Soul... two perfect songs for an existential crisis. Surprised you didn't talk more about the outro 'If I had an orchard I'd work 'til I'm sore', is just painfully idealistic and well 'helpless'. But above the lyrical expression, the thing which really makes this song rock is just how rad the vocal harmonies are. Those high notes in the harmony part of the verses are very cool. There is also so much life put into what is a very simple chord progression in the guitars. It all makes a song which could have been so depressing so much fun to listen to and despite the alienation present in the lyrics really gives a sense of urgency and love for life!

Agreed, definitely one of their best songs despite its simplicity. I think that's part of its appeal though; it's not overly elaborate because it's meant to be a retreat from society. The basic structure represents "the simple life" and the beauty that unfolds within it is self-evident. I could be reaching but that's how I always interpreted the song, especially considering the line about working in the orchard, which signifies a desire for honest work and, in a way, to "do what we're meant to do", because I'm sure humans weren't physiologically meant to sit in classrooms 8 hours a day, drive to an office to sit at a cube and stare at a screen, etc.

great song, one of my favorites by them for sure

Hey nice you heard of this one! ;-)

Don't get the love for this band but this song is pretty great

Why do lists like this have improved UI compared tp the rest of the site

"Don't get the love for this band but this song is pretty great"
I don't know what FF you have and haven't tried, but if crack-up was your initial exposure to these guys then I'd highly recommend backtracking to helplessness blues...it has a lot more tracks like this

"Why do lists like this have improved UI compared tp the rest of the site"
this isn't a standard part of the site, it's a wordpress blog integration

This was a nice write up. I've had the pleasure of seeing them headline Pitchfork both times that they did and this song was a definite highlight both times.While they've certainly had a fair share of great songs, I do think this is far and away the best of what they have to offer. For such a simple song, it really takes us on a journey. A fairly simple and, in a lot of contexts, laughably dumb dream, but it's so earnest and honest that it's hard not to get swept up in it all. I remember feeling a lot of similar things when this song dropped as I was beginning college and completely lost. Definitely deserving of a best song of the decade nod.

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