By Michael Lello
You wouldn’t be wrong to classify Fleet Foxes as part of the current neo-folk movement, but the band’s second full-length album “Helplessness Blues” takes another step toward removing the “neo” qualifier. This is authentic folk music, not an update on already-established techniques and sounds; it’s just that these particular purveyors are generations younger than their rightful peers.
While Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled breakthrough introduced listeners to the lush vocal harmonies and often Medieval-flavored sounds of this sextet, “Helplessness Blues” indicates two subtle additions: more prominent flavors from the American folk tradition — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel are all visited on the new record — and more directly personal lyrics from main Fox Robin Pecknold. Pecknold, who in interviews reveals himself to be a perfectionist always ready for the other shoe to drop, obsessed over “Helplessness Blues” to the point of losing his relationship with his girlfriend. That mid-midlife crisis doubt shines through in the songs.
The first two, “Battery Kinzie” and “Bedouin Dress” are relatively staid affairs, the only notable moment being a fiddle-led jaunt in the latter. Their primary purpose is as appetizers for “Blue Spotted Tail,” a stunning song comprised of nothing more than Pecknold’s vocals and acoustic guitar. Singing in an inviting and delicate voice, similar to Art Garfunkel in emotional approach if not range, Pecknold asks, “Why this frightened part of me that’s fated to pretend?/ Why is life made only for to end?” “The Cascades” is an instrumental but nevertheless lyrical and expressive, flowing from what sounds like the soundtrack to a Middle Ages banquet.
Fleet Foxes have a knack for shifting gears near the end of a song — a memorable example is their masterpiece “Mykonos” — and here it’s deployed to great effect on the title track; the band even takes it a step further by crafting the multi-part songs “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” and “The Shrine/An Argument.” In the title track, the sextet strums along before pumping the brakes, giving Pecknold’s unabashed emotionalism a sturdier platform.
The lilting chord progression of Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” is the keystone of “Lorelai,” while the almost-a cappella “Montezuma” finds the Foxes’ harmonies sounding more like dreamy street corner romanticism than Benedictine chants. Pecknold’s lead vocals take on a newfound soulfulness in his opening lament: “So now I am older than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?” There’s a contrast in the wide-open optimism in his voice as he comes to terms with his own selfishness, yearning for more as he hopes to find a way to “wash my hands of just looking out for me.”
“The Plains/ Bitter Dancer” recalls the gently rolling psychedelia of CSN’s “Wooden Ships,” leading to the other two-part suite, the epic “The Shrine/ An Argument.” Throughout its more than eight minutes, Pecknold at turns sings with anguish, regret and the subdued realization of a love lost. Before the three-minute mark, he’s “waking up to terrible sunlight” and a lover that no longer looks him in the eye when she speaks. The darkness seems to at least partially lift before the intrusion of a surprising squawking free jazz segment, depicting the point in a broken relationship where communication has crumbled into noisy arguments with no resolution in sight. The confusion dissipates, leaving only elegiac strings, and the song — and the relationship — is over.
The finality and emotional heaviness of “The Shrine/ An Argument” would have ended the album on a bleak note, so it’s a relief to welcome the closers “Sim Sala Bim,” which includes an aggressively strummed part in the vein of Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With,” and the simple, bright-eyed “Someone You’d Admire.”
Whether or not “Helplessness Blues” is an improvement upon “Fleet Foxes” is up for debate, but the band deserves credit for taking some risks. Listeners, too, will have to do a bit more work to internalize “Helplessness Blues” than “Fleet Foxes,” because the material is darker, at times denser and even a bit confounding. Some songs are a bit plodding, but that only goes to get across the ponderous nature of the emotions Pecknold is sharing. Some bold, soul-baring statements are made, and that realness means you won’t be toe-tapping for the entirety of the record. But that’s how it is with life.
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