Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues
By john taylor
May 4, 2011
Even if you are the Fleet Foxes, and are more or less responsible for reinventing modern folk as the general public (and NPR) knows it, the words “sophomore slump” still remain the two most feared words in your vocabulary.
Enter Helplessness Blues, a record three years in the making. Listening to it, you wouldn't know the anguish behind its troubled history. But this is exactly how the band, specifically anxious frontman Robin Pecknold, would have you experience it. Looking toward Van Morrison's classic Astral Weeks (which was recorded in a mere three days) as a source of inspiration, the Foxes have sought to capture a sound that is candid rather than reeking of endless studio tinkering. The end result is a gorgeous meditation on adulthood, every bit as compelling and engaging as their critically acclaimed debut.
Pecknold, who turned 25 this past March, has had some time to reflect upon the implications of celebrity. When the Foxes' debut was deemed “Album of the Year” by numerous publications, including The Times, Billboard and Pitchfork, Pecknold and company found themselves an overnight success. To meet the expectations for following up "a landmark in American music," the band rented out studio space in Seattle and committed several weeks to album number two. Though an early incarnation of Blues was ready as early as 2009, the sessions were scrapped.
That the album sounds effortless is a victory for Pecknold, who lost a great deal of sleep and a girlfriend in the grueling journey toward the release of Helplessness Blues. In an interview with SPIN, Pecknold noted, “It was getting to the point where either we were going to finish these few things that needed to be finished or we were going to scrap the whole thing, and I think I was the only person with the energy to scrap the whole thing ... but if everyone in the band is like, 'This is great,' I need to learn to trust that they're telling me the truth.”
At the heart of Blues is a burning desire to belong. I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me, Pecknold professes in the title track. Much of the record finds Pecknold helpless, confronting both his inner demons and overall weariness with newfound fame. He relives the dissolution of his relationship in album-defining “The Shrine / An Argument,” which explores new territory for the band, implementing a free-jazz freakout that recalls late-period Miles Davis.
Despite the darker elements that Blues entertains, its flawless execution cements the Foxes as a leading voice in alternative music. Pecknold can finally rest easy; this is the record everyone has been waiting for. “Grown Ocean” closes the album on a hopeful note, assuring the audience of his redemptive release from the burden of expectation: I will see you someday when I've woken / I'll be so happy just to have spoken / I'll have so much to tell you about it.
John Taylor is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @johntaylortweet.