In the press release for Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold makes it clear that the band in no way anticipated the success of their self-titled first album. The band’s plan was to begin recording a follow-up in the fall of 2008, just months after the album’s release. The album’s success, however, led to additional touring and grander expectations. It’s easy to imagine that had their debut been met with a more modest reception, the band’s sophomore release might have been a bit more modest in return. Seeing as how their debut really was a perfect encapsulation of a sound, on a grand scale, the options for their sophomore release were limited to three directions. They could continue with the winning formula of their debut, almost ensuring diminishing returns, they could break away from it completely — which would be a risky endeavor — or they could find intriguing ways to expand their palette all the while keeping that Fleet Foxes style intact. Perhaps not so surprisingly, they chose to go with the latter, but the band really seems to be conscientious of this decision. It’s very clear that they have gone to great lengths to differentiate Helplessness Blues from their debut.
That’s not to say anything on Helplessness Blues comes as a big surprise or feels like the work of another band so much as the work of a band looking for new ways to stretch their existing formula. Starting with the instrumentation, there seems to be a real deliberate attempt to show movement from their last record; that in and of itself is commendable. And Fleet Foxes have done a great job of implementing these new textures. Woodwinds, harmoniums, dulcimers and even Moog synths have been added to the mix and create interesting new dimensions to the record. There is really only one instance on the album where the band’s ambition may have gotten in the way of the album’s overall arc. The free-jazz breakdown toward the end of “The Shine/An Argument” is enjoyable, but it really comes as somewhat of a shock to the system and doesn’t quite fit the mood of the rest of the album. It’s a minor quibble and even as I listen to the record more, I’m at least aware enough to brace myself for its arrival.
As suggested by the album’s title, Helplessness Blues‘ lyrical themes revolve around the contemplation of existence itself, getting older, how much control one has over the course of their life, etc. All of this could be a disaster in the wrong hands, but with Fleet Foxes it adds up to a more personal record lyrically than its predecessor. At times Helplessness Blues can come off a little lyrically clumsy (see the rather silly pondering of “Why in the night sky are the lights on?” in “Blue Spotted Tail”), but the vulnerability and strength of delivery is almost always poignant. Pecknold can ask big questions with an almost childlike innocence that’s as relatable as it is moving. On the title track, a song whose melodies and jangling acoustic guitars are reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel, Pecknold starts off confessing that he’d rather be “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me” than something utterly unique. It’s not a claim you hear every day and whether or not you feel the same way it’s hard to question his sincerity.
Helplessness Blues can meander a bit in places, but its minor flaws only go to underscore the theme of the record and give it a real human quality. The album may not be as immediate or as consistent as its pristine predecessor but it’s still a qualified success on nearly every level. Everything we’ve come to love about Fleet Foxes is here in abundance and the band’s considered approach has kept them expanding their sound in consistently rewarding ways. Pecknold fantasizes on the record about working in an orchard until he’s sore; it’s certainly conceivable that he would put his heart and soul into it. He’s definitely not messing around with this music thing.
Video: Fleet Foxes – “Grown Ocean”