CD Review: Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Robin Pecknold comes off like a self-loathing worrywart in a recent Rolling Stone profile where the magazine describes the 25-year-olf Fleet Foxes frontman as spending the days following the leak of his band’s latest album — Helplessness Blues — constantly checking Twitter to see whether the masses like it or not. Pecknold could find nary an aversion to the group’s brand new effort, and he'll likely have to look far and wide to actually find one.

Maintaining the status quo is often negatively associated with settling or refusing to grow, but Pecknold and the rest of the Foxes could’ve repeated the magic they cooked up on their 2008 self-titled debut LP and still be considered modern folk demigods. So while Helplessness is, indeed, rife with the same pristine harmonies and baroque-style instrumentation that marked Fleet Foxes (and the ensuing Sun Giant EP), that doesn’t mean that the best can’t get better.

Clocking in at well under an hour, Helplessness Blues is a near-masterpiece. Naturally, the 12-track effort is marked by the complex harmonies that made the Seattle-based sextet famous, but the vocals and old world arrangements are just the tip of the iceberg. Every repeated listen rewards listeners with new sonic wrinkles like the faint plucks of guitar that dance below the ghostly chanting on “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” or the hymn-like vocals and intricate beds of sound that Pecknold’s bandmates lay down on “Montezuma” for their high-pitched leader to deliver depressingly introspective lyrics like, “Oh man what I used to be/oh man/oh my/oh me…”

The funny thing is that it’s the juxtaposition of joyous arrangements (they channel Déjà Vu-era CSNY on “Sim Sala Bim”) and self-depreciating lyrics (“Battery Kinzie” find Pecknold singing, “I woke up one morning/all my fingers rotting/I woke up a dying man without a chance”) that make the set so enjoyable.

Pecknold split with his longtime squeeze as a result of Helplessness’ rigorous recording process, and his anguish is seemingly captured on one of the album’s best tracks, “The Shrine/Argument”, which finds the boys weaving an epic (eight-minute) tale of loneliness with a protagonist who hates the sun and spends his morning washing someone’s name off of his neck. “In the morning waking up to the terrible sunlight,” Pecknold sings about his plight, “when you talk you hardly look into my eyes.”

The melodrama continues on “Blue Spotted Tail,” in which Pecknold soul-searches over simple acoustic guitar. The light at then of the tunnel makes shows itself on album closer “Grown Ocean.” On top of a throttling riff, majestic choral incantations, and what sounds like twirling flute, Pecknold looks on the bright side, delivering lyrics about licking his wounds, seeing through inner confusion, and being able to share his growth with someone he loves. “In the dream I could hardly contain it,” he jubilantly exclaims in the song’s closing seconds, “all my life I will wait to attain it.”

It’s not clear exactly who or what he’s after, but if Pecknold — whose quest for sonic perfection has led to last minute re-recordings of songs — was in search of the perfect album, then he might want to quit because it’s actually arrived.

Check out the title track, "Helplessness Blues," below.

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues by subpop

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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