The band began turning heads with the mix of folk and pastoral imagery on their 2008 self-titled debut, but the release of Helplessness Blues adds to the formula and catapults it into another dimension.
Being a fan of indie folk, I was drawn in by the pre-release buzz surrounding the band and album. And the layout of the photos and tracklisting on the back reminded me a lot of Let It Be, a nice touch.
But when I popped this disc in I realzied it wasn't quite what I was expecting. This isn't your Bright Eyes, Iron & Wine, and The Tallest Man on Earth type of flolk; Helplessness Blues is more akin to the 70s singer/songwriter Crosby, Stills, and Nash type of folk. This is music to make you want to button up your tunic and go hunt buffalo on the Great Plains.
One of the main keys to what's going on here are the richly textured melodies and harmonies that sound as though they're descending from heaven. It's all layered atop a patchwork of intensely personal acoustic guitar passages, pianos, mandolins, marxophones, harpsichords, and even Tibetian singing bowls.
At the center of it all is Robin Pecknold's smooth, mellow cadence. One of his highlight pieces is "The Shrine/An Argument," which is one of the rare instances where he gets to show off the raw power of his voice, along with his magnificent range.
The lyric writing is also standout. They possess a very heartfealt quality to them while also being very colorful and detalied. "Lorelai" sees the speaker recalling a past love, a topic that's been covered many a time. But take a look at the way it's done here:
"You, you were like glue
Holding each of us together
I slept through July
While you made lines in the heather
I was old news to you then
Old news, old news to you then"
It creates a much more fully fleshed out picture you can easily see in your mind's eye.
"Bedouin Dress" was one of my favorite tracks, which speaks of the regret that a former thief/criminal has when looking back on the days of their youth. In it, the speaker yearns to return to Innisfree, an island well known in Irish lore/culture, but can't due to the choices he made.
"Lorelai" waltzes by at a nice easygoing pace and melody, while "Sim Salla Bim" and "Someone You'd Admire" strike a wistful, pensive mood. Truly, almost every song on the record is a highlight, but Helplessness Blues's title track shines brightest.
It is a combination of spitfire acoustic strumming, heady lyrics about finding yourself and taking a stand, and features a breathtaking shift in time signature near the song's conclusion. The fantastic imagery in the second verse shows off the brilliance of Pecknold's writing:
"What's my name, what's my station
oh, just tell me what i should do
I don't need to be kind to the armies of night
that would do such injustice to you.
Or, bow down and be grateful
and say " sure, take all that you see"
to the men who move only in dimly lit halls
and determine my future for me."
With Helplessness Blues, the Fleet Foxes have created a work that is fresh, bold, and adventureous. It is a fantastic record and is already one of the top statements of the year thanks to all the wonderful melodies, writing and moods that I can keep coming back to time after time.