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Helplessness Blues

1 rating: 3.0
An album by Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues is the second studio album by Seattle-based folk band Fleet Foxes. It was released on May 3, 2011 as a follow-up to their eponymous 2008 Fleet Foxes album.

Tags: Indie Music, Baroque Pop, 2011 Music Releases, Fleet Foxes
1 review about Helplessness Blues

An ambitious, sometimes pretentious, sophomore effort from Fleet Foxes

  • May 18, 2011

It took almost three years for Fleet Foxes to follow up their critically acclaimed debut album; that's long enough in the indie music world to forget a band entirely. But "Helplessness Blues" shows that Fleet Foxes' front man, Robin Pecknold, wasn't interested in producing more of the super accessible, internet radio-friendly harmonic folk tunes that dominated the first album - he wants to branch out, to be an important and memorable band, not just a blip on your iTunes screen. With "Helplessness Blues," Fleet Foxes mostly succeeds. The album starts off slowly. A lot of attention has been paid by critics and reviewers to the opening line of the first track: "So now I am older than my mother or father/when they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me." It's a great line, and sets the tone of self-reflection/navel-gazing that will dominate the album (one might just as soon ask, "What does that say about them?" but that's not the kind of question that would occur to Pecknold) What seems to go unnoticed by most is that the track isn't very interesting sonically. This feels like Fleet Fox by numbers - all the elements are there, the harmonies, the appalachian folk stylings, but the song lacks anything personal or unique about it. Also the weird lyrical issues that will plague most of the album begin: after writing a fairly simple song about worrying about ending up alone at the end of one's life, "Montezuma" ends with the line it takes its title from, an out-of-left-field reference to "The Marine's Hymn." WTF? 


The lyrical tangles continue on the second track, "Bedouin Dress," which starts off with an oddball redefintion of borrowing (um, that's not borrowing, guys, that's stealing) then introduces a reference either to WB Yeats' poem "Lake Isle of Innisfree"  or the John Wayne movie "The Quiet Man,"  (you choose) before turning into a reflection on the titular dress.  The third song, "Sim Sala Bim,"  finally gets things straight, and ironically enough does so through the use of gibberish; the title is a reference to a love spell the singer feels he's under.   Like the two songs before it (and many after,) it switches gears in the middle, starting out about a dream before waking to fret about love, but at least this shift makes sense.   Also, it ends in a great instrumental jam, prominently featuring a jangly 12 string guitar.  


"Battery Kinzie" is a shout out to the Brian Wilson/Phil Spector "wall of sound" production that was popular in the '60s;  it's an odd shift from the reverb-heavy feel of most of the album, but everyone's emulating Wilson these days, so I guess it makes sense.  The song might be about waking up dead; this is one that sounds good enough (and lacks any glaring lyrical gnarls) that one can enjoy listening to it without really knowing what's going on with it, exactly.  


And then begin the Big Important Songs.  "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" is too important for just one title; it's also almost six minutes long, opening instrumentally, building to harmonic voices before a single word is sung.  This feels like Fleet Foxes trying to do "Stairway to Heaven;" and it mostly works.  "Helplessness Blues" is Big Important Song #2; anthemic, easy to sing along to, this feels very much like the Foxes are really trying to create a sort of "For What It's Worth," ie, a song a whole to encompass the feeling of a whole generation and era, a song that will show up in montages of nostalgic movies in the "Forrest Gump" mold twenty years from now.  It's about wanting to be something bigger than oneself, but not sure what that should be: 


I was raised up believin'

I was somehow unique

like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes

unique in each way you can see


And now after some thinkin'

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.


Both of these songs are extremely ambitious, and there's a thin line between ambition and pretension.  I think they both work pretty well, their main weakness is that their blueprint shows through a little too clearly.


"The Cascades" is a sonic sigh of relief; it's a short instrumental track letting us know that the Big Important Songs are over.   It's followed by "Lorelai," my least favorite track on the album. This song feels intentionally - perhaps overly intentionally crafted to be pop/radio friendly.  And the lyrics, at least at first (before, like most songs on the album, they abruptly shift in the middle of the song) could be directed to fickle fans.  "So I guess I got old/I was trash on the sidewalk...I was old new to you then" and about the difficulty of continuing to do interviews and album promotions "I guess I knew why/Often it's hard to sweet talk."  But as it winks, it seems terribly pretentious, like Robin Pecknold the whole notion of fans and popular music.   The more I read and listen to the album, the more he comes across as an ass.  But a talented ass.  


But maybe he knows he's an ass, and maybe that makes it easier to forgive him.  "Someone You'd Admire" is the saddest song on the album; realy, this is the song that ought to be titled "Helplessness Blues".  It looks back: "All that I hoped would change within me stayed"  and then casts that forward: I could become someone you'd admire, or...not. And "God only knows which of them I'll become."   That's pretty depressing.  

"The Shrine/An Argument" is an interesting failure of a song; it feels like a Big Important reject, but at the same time, opens doors as to where Fleet Foxes could go next. Pecknold strain his voice like a rock star; it's a startling moment that just highlights how often and how much this band remains in complete control sonically. It opens an interesting door.  They're not going there anywhere on this record, but maybe on the third?  I like this track, until the end, when it suddenly sounds like a goose being attacked by a swarm of bees enters the studio.  I guess that's called "free jazz."  It pretty much ruins the song for me.

A lot of this album reminds me of '60s & '70s hippie music, and "Blue Spotted Tail" in particular feels like a Paul Simon castoff like "Song for the Asking." (If Simon had been a nihilist, and just had lunch with Stephen Hawking.) The album concludes with "Grown Ocean," which might be my favorite track on the record.  It feels like a celebration of all that's come before, an epilogue of sorts.  And I like the lyrics: through a glass darkly, and someday.  Sonically it's big and bold; this is melding the big important songs on this record with the more melodically minded ones.  

"Helplessness Blues" is a big, ambitious, important, sometimes pretentious album; it succeeds more than it fails, I think, but still, falls short of being (in my mind) the iconic album it wants to be, mostly through trying too hard.  There aren't many moments on "Helplessness Blues" that don't feel at least a little purposeful, oveflowing into forced.  These don't feel like personal songs that flow out of an artist doing his best work; they feel like a Senior Thesis; an artist determined to do Something and get a good grade while doing it.   It works pretty well, and "Blues" will show up, undoubtedly, on a lot of critics' Best of the Year lists.  But I'll be curious to see how it ages; will we still be talking about it and listening to it in ten years?  Pecknold clearly wants us to.   And that might be what keeps this really good album from being great.   

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Release Date: May 3, 2011

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