When Fleet Foxes EP and, quickly thereafter, self-titled long-player were released in 2008, it was easy to presume that maybe that was it–that their debut would be the highest note they’d hit. Folk harmonizers have been an anchor of popular music as we know it for decades, but recent history hasn’t had a great place for them. Folk has a difficult time reaching beyond its niche audience, and Fleet Foxes reside in a subset of even that. So, it was through an otherworldly masterstroke that they were able to ride their harmonies to such a magnificent debut.
And then there’s Robin Pecknold, who seemed at the time like a loosely gathered wood creature, conjuring beautiful images with lyrics of sun giants and cold, snowy hinterlands, but lyrics that didn’t often say anything concrete. They were what you wanted them to be–a resplendent dream, a phantasmagoric escape–and little else. Pecknold, too, was young. Some would say that spoke to his immense and lasting potential. But, as we often see, youth can yield a creativity tapped too soon, where little else could be said. And for the band to succeed, they would have to ultimately say something. They’d have to add meat to the bones of their structure. They couldn’t rely on the dream forever. Nor did they.
And therein lies the most remarkable achievement of Helplessness Blues. Without departing from what made them so wonderful three years ago, they added depth to their music. It isn’t just spewing out of some imaginary mountaintop anymore. It’s rooted in the here and now, in the human experience, not in the dream. But it’s still dreamlike.
That balance, a delicate one certainly, is on display in the title track. At an admittedly awkward moment to open, they try to lilt through a verbose turn of phrase about the uniqueness of snowflakes and people. But they quickly rescue you from a second of guessing. Later, Pecknold sings, “Yeah, I’m tongue-tied and dizzy / And I can’t keep it to myself / What good is it to sing helplessness blues / Why should I wait for anyone else?” And you witness something that wasn’t always present in 2008: some sort of self-awareness, some sort of humanity. He’s singing the blues, not in solitary confinement, but in public decree of his fight onward. There’s the meat. And here’s the dream: “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore / And you would wait tables and soon run the store / Gold hair in the sunlight / My light in the dawn.”
It reckons the same idylls we visited before, but more tangibly so, more accessibly so. And it needs to be for his previous words to resound more clearly. Because if the depth resided in a world we didn’t know, in a world of utter fantasy, then it too would feel distant, maybe not even real.
We don’t have to wait until “Helplessness Blues” to find it, though. From the opener, “Montezuma,” we see layers being built and peeled back. “So now I am older / Than my mother and father / when they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?” he sings, wondering how he could even be capable of such selflessness, suggesting in the chorus that his life has been otherwise. There’s regret there, depth.
Another layer is shed, another revealed, when he questions, “In dearth or excess / Both the slave and the empress / Will return to the dirt I guess / Naked as they came.” “I guess” he says, indicating what he’s been told — in lore, in biblical passage, in tradition — but what he’s not sure he believes any longer. He doesn’t know if he’ll see “faces above me” when he dies, or maybe “just cracks in the ceiling.” “Nobody else is to blame,” he laments. Nobody but himself.
This would all simply seem like a meditation on what one’s life is worth, the value of things. But then he closes, “Oh man what I used to be / Montezuma to Tripoli.” And that’s no accident. In a calculated finale, he alludes to the Marines’ Hymn, “From the Halls of Montezuma / To the shores of Tripoli.” That’s not to say this is a protest song or conscientious objection–there’s too much left for us to linger on to determine that. But it does imply that he’s seen and possibly done things that have tarnished the ideal that raised him. Wayward has he traveled from the simplicity of family, and on that road, he’s found that equality in death isn’t so, despite what the mythology of his now-distant youth had told him.
That two songs alone could beget such varied degrees of introspection speaks to the depth of the Helplessness Blues. This is its shining characteristic. We know Fleet Foxes can harmonize, that we’re lucky such a graceful and radiant collection of voices can dance together like sewing threads caught in a crosswind. But we didn’t know they were capable of moving beyond innocence and youth and fantasy. We didn’t know they were capable of looking inside and finding, not imagination, but themselves.
It can’t be said that this is a better record than their first, because few things could be. But it also can’t be said that it’s worse. It’s simply new. It’s growth–upward, outward, inward. We’re watching a band move boundlessly across a plane of music that leaves so many of its other folk purveyors constrained. And as they drift from their whimsical perch into a more grounded reality, they give us something to grab on to, if only for a second, just before they take flight again. words/ j. crosby
MP3: Fleet Foxes :: Helplessness Blues