Fleet Foxes- Helplessness Blues- 2011
RMR Album Rating- 8
Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album Helplessness Blues is packed with so much rich instrumentation and beautiful vocal harmonies that the album’s sound is as lush and fertile as the orchards that many of the songs daydream about.
Stylistically, Fleet Foxes are one of the leaders of the current indie folk rock revival (2012) that also includes bands like The Decemberists, Bon Iver, and Band of Horses. Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold cites Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson (of The Beach Boys) as two of his primary musical influences, and they are definitely apparent. The sound of Helplessness Blues can be described as a combination of 60’s style folk and pop rock, but it is very important to note that the sound does not come across as poppy, rather it comes across as catchy, which is an important distinction.
For me, Pecknold’s vocals are the highlight of the album, and I think I could enjoy the album even if it were just Pecknold signing. With that being said, I don’t want to inaccurately label the other musicians as just Pecknold’s backing band because their playing is full of texture, and it is the perfect compliment to Pecknold’s vocals. Although the band relies mainly on acoustic instruments with subtle sounds like the acoustic guitar, mandolin, bass, and drums, they also add some slight keyboards for atmosphere, and the end result is a sound that is deeply layered and extremely fruitful, and the total package of vocals and instrumentation almost sounds like a gospel album in some parts– not in a religious sense, but more in an ethereal way, and it really strikes an emotional chord with me.
The album also follows a lyrical theme through many of its songs that ties everything together. The lyrics are particularly introspective, and they subtly, yet poetically, cover the theme of coming of age and realizing the responsibly of adulthood. This tone is set right from the lead off track “Montezuma,” which juxtaposes the feelings that one has when he realizes that he has to leave selfishness behind, but he still remembers and longs for the time when he was free of responsibilities. This concept is captured perfectly in the first verse with these lyrics that lead off the album:
“So now I am older than my mother and father/ when they had their daughter/ now what does that say about me?/ Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love/ could I wash my hands of/ just looking out for me?/ Oh man what I used to be/ Oh man oh my oh me” (Click here to listen to Montezuma)
“Battery Kinzie” covers the enviable emotions that we feel as we realize that we are growing older and losing our youthfulness. I love the lyrics here as well:
“I woke up one morning/ All my fingers rotting/ I woke up a dying man, without a chance/ I came to your window/ Threw a stone and waited/ At the door, a stranger stood/ The stranger’s voice said nothing good/ I turned to walk the frozen ground/ alone/ All the way home” (Click here to listen to Battery Kinzie).
Then, there’s “Helplessness Blues,” which is the highlight of the album for me. The song really has two parts. In the first part of the song, the narrator comes to the realization that human uniqueness and individuality is not as appealing as it once was. Then, the song plays off this theme of disenchanted uniqueness, and completely changes its theme to a description of a simple life that is not unique at all. The juxtaposition is perfect. Pecknold describes this simple life with the narrator now as a farmer tending to an orchard, and this second section of the song is presented like it’s almost a daydream. Plus, the way the song transitions from the first part to the second at about the 2:50-mark flows so seamlessly that it reminds me of the way a dream can shift from one topic to another in the same way. Both parts of “Helplessness Blues” are the absolute lyrical highlights of the album for me. (Read the opening lyrics to both parts of the song below, and click here to listen to Helplessness Blues)
Helplessness Blues (the first part- first verse)
“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/ But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be/ I’ll get back to you someday/ soon you will see”
Helplessness Blues- (the second part- first verse that starts around 2:50)
“If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw/ If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore/
And you would wait tables and soon run the store/ Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn/ If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore”
My only real knock of the album is that the second half is not quite as strong as the first, but all the songs are winners. In addition to “Montezuma,” “Battery Kinzie,” and “Helplessness Blues” that I already detailed, the other stand out tracks for me are “Bedouin Dress,” “Sim Sala Bim,” and “Lorelai,” but there’s really not a weak spot on the album, and as mentioned, the album really flows well from song to song almost like an evolving daydream.
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