The Belle Jar- Union Station
Mar 5, 2014
Three years ago, five beard- and flannel-loving Seattle musicians released two magical pieces of music, the Sun Giant EP and their self-titled debut. They became a sensation, their album peaking at 200,000 copies sold worldwide. Now, they’ve added another member and more talent to their already impressive band.
Helplessness Blues is the expansion we’d all hoped for from Fleet Foxes. They’ve risen from the rustic casket that threatened to confine them.
Fleet Foxes was a gorgeous slice of pastoral folk heaven. Songs about sunrises, mountains and children in their winter gear shined with golden harmonies swiped from Crosby, Stills & Nash and rumbling percussion straight out of Appalachia.
On Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes channel a darker beauty in the vein of Nick Drake, dabbling into lower guitar tunings and atypical time signatures. The slightly Mediterranean “Sim Sala Bim” is half folk tune, half gypsy jam, and it’s a lot more experimental than their self-titled debut had room for. “Bedouin Dress” dances with a frisky fiddle melody that would have felt out of fashion on their last release.
But Fleet Foxes have grown older, as band leader and chief beard Robin Pecknold makes clear on many the album’s dozen songs, especially the title track. “Helplessness Blues” is the grand, vulnerable centerpiece of the album, showcasing the themes of identity anxiety and aging in general. Hell, Pecknold’s very first words on the album are pretty heavy. “So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter. Now what does that say about me?” he utters on quiet opener “Montezuma.”
Pecknold has made the songs more about him, in turn, making them more about us. The eight-plus-minute “The Shrine / An Argument” is more audacious than anything the band’s had the guts to try yet—and it succeeds. Starting slow with descriptions of copper pennies at a shrine, the song blooms into a breakup tale, with Pecknold’s angelic voice enriched by the band’s gorgeous harmonies.
Perhaps the most brightly colored track is the album’s closer, “Grown Ocean,” which was released with a companion video of the band’s extracurricular pursuits while in the studio and on the road. The song is a travelogue for a vivid dream, and Pecknold delivers each image with confidence and awe. “I’ll have so much to tell you about,” he sings about when he wakes from the dream.
His words are an accurate statement of what listeners are likely to say after completing the magnificent Helplessness Blues.
Listen to "Grown Ocean":