Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Bella Union)

April 28, 2011 by  

The success story that has followed Seattle’s Fleet Foxes around since their debut in 2008 meant that interest in their follow-up, which was penciled in for release last year, was always going to be rife.

Speaking in 2009, the album was promised by frontman Robin Pecknold to be “less poppy” and a “pretty boring” return, and was hoped to be completed “very quickly”. However, now over 12 months since their desired due date, Fleet Foxes return with ‘Helplessness Blues’, an album which suffered a stream of setbacks including solo touring commitments, illness, new material and lack of faith in their direction and focus. On a more personal level, this album laid waste to friendships and love interests for Pecknold, so taking everything into consideration, it has taken a lot to get ‘Helplessness Blues’ this far. But however negative they may have been at the time, these experiences have also inspired the album?s name, and probably the content. So what can we learn from what Fleet Foxes have learned from themselves?

At first glance, it seems not a lot. ‘Helplessness Blues’ starts and continues in much the same vein as their last album, and though there are touches of orchestration a little fuller than we’ve heard before, the sound seems too laid back, almost lazy.

Absent also is the earthy quality of the songs which was a key staple of the Fleet Foxes appeal. Gone is all the optimism, leaving nothing behind except a crude mold with which to mass produce songs in the key of melancholy, and helplessness it seems, is a fair and accurate description. The first five tunes sound like they’ve been taken off the first album?s cutting room floor, and stripped down in an attempt to mask the obvious idleness.

Then something unexpected happens, as sat right smack bang in the middle of this record is the title track, and it’s here we find the sea change.

It’s a glorious departure from the layered vocals over plodding folk music we?ve come to know as the band sheds its tried and tested methods for something a little bolder. The songs suddenly find life and honesty, even through their lyrical despair, and for large parts of the second half, we catch glimpses of what Pecknold must have been up to when touring solo, such is the solitary nature of the material. The album ends with what is possibly the stand out track ‘Grown Ocean’, putting the fire firmly back in the belly of the listener, offering the same brand of buoyancy that the latter half of the album needs to counteract the bleakness of the early songs.

No, this album is not as immediate as the first, nor does it possess tracks as memorable as those on their debut, but the best way to view ‘Helplessness Blues’ is as a journey; one that chronicles the band?s transition from where they were to where they have come. Some might say it?s a right of passage.