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Album Review
Helplessness Blues

Helplessness Blues
by Fleet Foxes

Sub Pop

Review Date
6th May 2011
Reviewed by
Gareth Meade

Immediately as it opens, the nearly three years between this new Fleet Foxes album and their self-titled debut melts away, as if no time has passed at all. That familiarity can distract you from what is actually a gaping chasm between the two releases, manifested by a striking confidence in voice, subtlety and musicianship. But for all its charm, Helplessness Blues still has the ability to test your love for Fleet Foxes. An apparent choice by the band to broaden their palette and scope often makes the album a challenging listen. But the saving grace is that it is imbued with a character that tells us even more about who Fleet Foxes are than their brilliant debut did all that time ago.

So what are they telling us? Mainly that they’re not comfortable with the Americana and folk tags that have followed them everywhere since first strumming a note. Granted the comfortable comparisons are still there, including an affinity for trans-Atlantic traditionalism, but as the album moves past slow-burning opener ‘Motezuma’, the uptempo swing of ‘Bedouin Dress’ takes over, foreshadowing a tendency towards medieval and Eastern influences and making sure to turn left when you think it’ll go right.

Sure, we’re not talking about a reinvention. Thematically, the lyrics are everything we’ve come to expect from lead singer Robin Pecknold; namely the contemplation of growing old, eventually dying and the struggle to be satisfied with what takes place in between. The obscurities are still there, as well as numerous poetic references, often swept up in a musical optimism and warmth that sounds hopeful rather than hopeless; especially on ‘Battery Kinzie’, the title track and ‘Grown Ocean’, all of which most closely resemble their debut.

But then there are those challenging elements, mostly made up of dual suites ‘The Plains/Bitter Dancer’ and ‘The Shrine/An Argument’. The former seems purposed with building anticipation, completely altering the earlier momentum. Almost incantatory for more than half its running time only at the end do the floodgates burst. It’s easy to imagine these as composites of different songs, especially the latter. While the song sees Pecknold at his most vital, almost screaming the line “Sunlight over me no matter what I do”, it mystifyingly contains a shapeless jazz figure that while being a commendably ballsy move, is unlikely to be anyone’s favourite moment on the record.

It feels like Fleet Foxes have made this album for themselves rather than to please anyone else. It contains Pecknold at his most stunning (especially on ‘Blue Spotted Tail’) and the band at their most uplifting. What’s most different to their debut is that not everything on Helplessness Blues works outside the context of the album. But in that, Fleet Foxes have made a statement, one that mostly has incredible focus and provides us the best view yet of who this band really is.


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