The beard-clad folk band Fleet Foxes are back with their new album “Helplessness Blues,” their first since their highly acclaimed self-titled effort. Since the success of their first album, they have recorded and scrapped an entire album’s worth of material and spent two years writing the songs featured on “Helplessness Blues.” However, was this extraordinary effort spent by the band worth it?
In a word: yes. The album is lush, rich and absolutely gorgeous. It starts with “Montezuma,” layered with a number of guitars, as well as the thick, distinctive harmonies that Fleet Foxes is known for. The first line of this song is telling of the theme of the rest of the album: “So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me.” In essence, Robin Pecknold, the lead singer, guitarist and primary songwriter of Fleet Foxes, is going through some sort of midlife crisis, exploring his age and questioning his place in the world. It’s kind of heavy for a 25-year-old at the helm of one of the most highly regarded new bands around, but his lyrics are quite well constructed and manage to both convey stories and be introspective — no easy feat.
The second song on the album, “Bedouin Dress,” tells of some of Pecknold’s regrets from his limited life experience. It’s an upbeat, folky ditty, featuring a prominent fiddle and mandolin, and booming, full percussion.
One of my favorite songs on the album, “Battery Kinzie,” seems to tell the tale of being rebuffed by a woman. It’s upbeat and primarily guitar and piano driven, with the only percussion seemingly coming from a tambourine and tympani — a strange combination, but one that works remarkably well with Fleet Foxes’ sound. “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” one of two suites on the album, features a number of tempo and instrumentation changes, and even a brief flute solo.
The songs continue in this fashion — mostly mid-tempo folk numbers with a wide variety of instrumentation, with the album culminating in the decidedly positive “Grown Ocean,” with major chords galore and flute trills, in which Pecknold accepts his eventual demise: “I know someday the smoke will all burn off/All these voices I’ll someday have turned off/I will see you someday when I’ve woken.”
The songs continue in this fashion with the themes primarily revolving around growing up. A number of older influences can be heard on the album, with many of the harmonies and lush folky aspects of the album definitely hearkening back to a few 70s classic rock bands, such as Crosby, Stills and Nash & Young. Also, especially with the longer form songs, some of the melodies, tempo changes and instrument choices are very reminiscent of early, folkier progressive rock — like in the song “The Shrine/An Argument.” Despite this, “Helplessness Blues” does not sound dated at all. The band picks and choses from what’s great about previous bands and uses the ideas to merely enhance what could only be described as superb songwriting.
Fleet Foxes’ new album is an absolutely delightful self-exploration. The songs are immediately inviting, but provide much in density and complexity, making this album a definite grower. Unlike some of their new folk contemporaries (ahem, Mumford & Sons), Fleet Foxes displays a great maturity and richness with their songwriting on “Helplessness Blues” that is almost unmatched among their peers.