Of the seemingly innumerable new bands that have burst onto the music scene over the past few years, perhaps none was as prone to the stereotypical sophomore slump as Fleet Foxes. Their self-titled debut album, released almost three years ago, generated a profuse amount of buzz and sales to match, going platinum in the UK and topping almost every notable best-of-the-year list.
In other words, it would have been completely understandable for the Seattle-based sextet’s second album of choral beard-folk to fall short of what would surely be high expectations. Fortunately for the human race, “Helplessness Blues” represents a bold step forward for the band and, whereas the debut album produced excitement, this new record is proof that Fleet Foxes are worthy of the buzz.
“Helplessness Blues” took almost three years to fully materialize. The band’s frenetic touring schedule certainly complicated things, as did side projects and solo work by some of the band’s members. By the time the album was finished, recording had taken place at four different studios across the country. Fortunately, the slow pace allowed this band of perfectionists to pay attention to every minor detail — and it shows. Their trademark choral folk sound is now much more sophisticated, even for a band that many were saying had a complete sound only one album into its career.
The first thing fans of the band will notice about this record is its updated lyrical content. Most of the songs on the first Fleet Foxes album seemed to be about mountains and forests, but on “Helplessness Blues,” lead singer Robin Pecknold gets personal. The opening track, “Montezuma,” finds Pecknold using the word “I” more in one song than on the entire first album. Instead of pastoral imagery, Fleet Foxes get sentimental about people and relationships and family ties this time around – friendships and relationships that have been strained by Fleet Foxes’ success and busy schedule. Granted, this is coming from a band that has sold a lot of albums and is now much more self-aware than it was before, but the intimate subject matter is refreshing and is much easier to take seriously.
In terms of the music itself, “Helplessness Blues” doesn’t necessarily stray too far from a formula that was already working — a formula that the band itself describes as “baroque harmonic pop jams” — but it does add layer upon layer of complexity and intricacy. A few years ago, critics were praising the band’s ambitious song structure, which rejected traditional verse/chorus setups for more complex arrangements.
A track like “The Shrine/An Argument” is evidence that the band appreciated the compliment; the eight-minute song shifts between varying movements with no apparent correlation, and the whole thing concludes with a weird avant-garde blast of jazzy horns over slow folk guitar notes. Even on tracks like “Bedouin Dress” and “Grown Ocean,” which represent more familiar territory for the band, the listener still finds the music straying from more common song structures. In fact, the entire record demonstrates the band’s constantly advancing musicianship; simple guitar strumming has given way to intricate finger-style playing, and there are now violins, hammered dulcimers, woodwinds and lap-steel guitars in the mix.
Even with the added instrumentation and musicality, though, harmony is still the most important element of each song. Anyone who has attended a Fleet Foxes show will tell you that the choral nature of the band’s music takes center stage. This record doesn’t forget that even in its most striking musical moments; there are frequent breaks for a capella croon sessions, and Pecknold is joined often by a harmonious blend of all six of his bandmates’ voices. The gorgeous and intricately layered harmonies on “Battery Kinzie” and “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” provide ample evidence of the band’s vocal focus.
Perhaps none of the songs are as catchy or as repeatable as “White Winter Hymnal,” the last album’s big hit. But as good as that song was, this is a band that knows – and has now proven – that it can do even better. “Helplessness Blues” might not be in your metaphorical CD player as long as “Fleet Foxes” was, but this is a finished product that commands much more respect than its predecessor. Those that somehow avoided the first album might want to head there first, but “Helplessness Blues” is a needed addition to the music library of every folk enthusiast.