Review Summary: A rousing, earthy release, Helplessness Blues improves on a first album which didn't even seem to need such a treatment. There are a few misfires, but on their sophomore album the Fleet Foxes really are growing into a force to be reckoned with.
On the opening track of the Fleet Foxes' sophomore album, singer Robin Pecknold sighs 'oh man what I used to be.' With 2008's sleeper hit single White Winter Hymnal, the Fleet Foxes seemed poised to take over the music-loving world with their evocative, cryptic lyrics and paradoxically sunny harmonies. It was a brave decision, then, to change their sound so radically, albeit suddenly, for their follow-up effort, Helplessness Blues. Sure, the glorious harmonies are present and correct, and Pecknold still has one of the more interesting voices and lyrical styles in the genre, but Helplessness Blues really sees the Fleet Foxes carving their own niche even further by, ironically, fitting in just a little more.
But let's get back to that opening track. The complex guitar line that heralds the beginning of Montezuma immediately reveals a key difference between the two albums; whilst their first release was the quintessential crisp winter morning soundtrack, Helplessness Blues is a far more joyful affair, evoking summery imagery in spades by the time of its conclusion. Whereas the harmonies in their self-titled sounded more like a wintry choir, here the layering of the vocals sound like a windy sunny morning driving along the highway.
The lyrics don't quite fit this carefree musical feel, however; on Helplessness Blues, Pecknold is more introspective than ever. From the mid-life crisis of Montezuma to the decidedly communist yearnings of the title track, he's seems ready and willing to change something, anything, about the world which he says is 'so inconceivable' to him. This sense of courageousness that the lyrics bely give the album a sense of urgency that their first album lacked, which works in the music's favour as it seems more directed, more purposeful.
And whilst 'more directed' might sound suspiciously close to 'dumbed down,' in the musical department, Helplessness Blues more than outdoes it's predecessor. Whilst it still remains largely within the confines of the vague 'folk rock' territory that the band seem locked into, the album manages to incorporate some interesting experiments into the Fleet Foxes' typical sound. Whether it's the exhilarating, rousing and deceptively simple choruses of the title track, or the free jazz explosion at the end of The Shrine/An Argument which will draw comparisons with Radiohead's 'The National Anthem,' the Fleet Foxes are more willing to try new things here than they have been on any of their other EPs or LPs. Hell, the gleeful, frantic, almost hill-billy outro of Sim Sala Bim actually sees the Fleet Foxes turning into a fairly 'rocking' group for a few minutes. It's this 'what's coming up next"' feel with regards to the music that keeps Helplessness Blues chugging along nicely, never really seeming to drag.
Obviously, there are some slightly less impressive moments; Battery Kinzie is, whilst lyrically competent, one of the band's most uninspired songs, and The Cascades feels almost entirely unnecessary, at least in the position it's in on the album's tracklisting. Nonetheless, for the most part Helplessness Blues is an enormous improvement over the Fleet Foxes' already-stellar first album. and one that continues to entertain on repeated listens. The title track might also just end up being the track of the year for this reviewer, at least. At the end of the final track, Grown Ocean, Robin Pecknold describes himself as a 'wide-eyed leaver, always going.' If that it true, let's at least hope that the Fleet Foxes have a few more albums in them before their frontman exits stage left; I can say that I'm truly excited for what this group has to offer up next.