Music Reviews
Helplessness Blues

Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues

(Sub Pop) Rating - 9/10

Lets face it. In first-world countries, the question of a wandering spirit in today’s age of supermodernity has become increasingly quaint, if nearly nonexistent. All the values modernists fought for have been promptly replaced by acquisitive concerns, whether it’s quick wealth expansion, greater living standards, or the hunger for affirming one’s own supremacy. Nowadays, having an idealism that favors concepts such as community growth and modest thought is looked upon as hardly sane. Yes, an argument could be made about all these variances being older than time, but never as rampant as today’s established livelihood.

Robin Pecknold, lead singer and frontman of the Fleet Foxes, could be defined as a postmodernist. His poetic license harks back to the spirit of the sixties and seventies, two decades that established all the present amenities we know and love today. The value and care he gives to music from an era in which he wasn’t even born could be thought of as an anomaly, especially if he’s never lived through all the hardships that pertained to much tougher times. Even so, his yearning for a simpler life palpitates, describing himself as a wide-eyed wanderer whose intent on keeping himself grounded. Throughout Helplessness Blues, he’s asking himself existential questions in an era where even the very idea of existentialism is debatable, when even the next scientific breakthrough could lead us to live longer.

The idea of a folk artist comes out as hokey and laughable, but that’s only because our current landscape is far more contrasting. All the mainstream folk players of the sixties were young, but at least their shtick resonated because history ascertains that they were going through political and social changes. There’s no doubt that even the most diligent, mature songwriters had to fend off amateur impostors who also wanted their story to be told. It was to everyone’s advantage. Since Pecknold is so young, one wonders where this antiquated stimulation comes from. And in executing it, does it make him any less authentic?

Having struggled with the creation of Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes had to go through various evolutions to make sure that what they had in their hands would content them and their listeners. After the wild praise of their self-titled release, assumptions could be made about how the final result was analytically constructed. Fittingly enough, they put all questions to rest with Montezuma, which opens with a finger picking acoustic melody and an elegant choral swoon that remains very much in the vein of their debut. The rustic, country tinge of Bedouin Dress counteracts with a leading fiddle and the low-pitched bass rumbles of an upright bass, livening up the Nick Drake-like soft strumming and bluesy space.

The Fleet Foxes are rejecting the idea of levelheaded change whilst accepting that their past has as much value in the present. They pursue it without any indication of following any drastic change for the sake of it. The only progressions are the ones actually heard on record like in The Plains/A Bitter Dancer, an episodic lament that begins with a thick hammered dulcimer and slowly increments with a lattice of string and woodwind instrumentation until it finalizes with a rousing dancing hoedown.  Such joy interpolates with Pecknold alluding, bitter dancer, ever turning, thinking upon the fleeting succession of life and death.

Helplessness Blues is a cosmic, bombastic record, undaunted and ready to expose itself on every corner with a whole lot of heart. But even if it’s crammed with a wide range of instruments, the songs themselves remain unpresumptuous. Phil Ek returns to the production booth, keeping the band on its toes and really focusing on beaming every separate tool in hand with technical elegance. From the coiling, Norwegian Wood resembling waltz of Lorelai, to the stark simplicity of Someone You’d Admire, the acoustics heard are provided with a rich, pleasing warmth. Though some of the transitions can be somewhat patchy, the compositions themselves abstain from any boisterous indulgences.

Helplessness Blues ends with Grown Ocean, a high-spirited acoustic rouse marked by pummeling tympani and even a whimsical flute that emerges just in time to announce its grand finale. In it, Pecknold recurs to the theme of salvation amidst a pastoral fantasia; when the music stops, he sings in a cappella: wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me/I will wake one day, don’t delay me. The words may very well be abstract, but he does sound like he’s reaffirming his personal journey, stating that he’ll find what he’s seeking at his own pace. It may be his own manifesto, but when the music is this striking, it makes you appreciate life more.