Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues

Helplessness Blues is a deeply uncool album. If you played it for your dad he’d either say, “Finally,” or he’d laugh and put on some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, maybe even America if you stuck around. Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes’ singer and songwriter knows how unhip this music is. In his Progress Report interview he said “You know, if we were suddenly making a witch house record then that would feel pretty inauthentic, but I feel pretty comfortable with what we’re doing. Playing folky music is what we do best.” Staying within their comfort zone, remaining authentic to themselves, has paid off on Helplessness Blues. By working within the folk tradition (and seeing themselves as part of it), they’ve created a record that will appeal to fans of the genre, and people ambivalent about folk music as well. Maybe even people who dislike folk music. It helps you love Helplessness Blues if you love ’60s and ’70s folk rock, but the record is so good that it projects the vitality of those records, rather than just their influence. So maybe Fleet Foxes isn’t the Salem of folk rock, but they may be the James Blake (sorry) of folk rock, the album so likable that it elevates a genre that others have been working with for years (well, decades). In other words, thanks to Helplessness Blues, white-bread folk rock is back.

There are a few reasons for this. Pecknold is less oblique, more straightforward lyrically on their second album. His details and the overall album theme can be mundane in places. Helplessness Blues is about aging and feeling useless, it’s meant to be mundane. But over the album’s beautiful instrumental arrangements and warm blankets of harmony, these details and themes feel transcendent, spiritual, and deep. Aging and waiting show up in different ways, from the opening lines of opening song “Montezuma,” where he sings “Now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter / What does that say about me?” to the description of kids tossing pennies in a fountain in “The Shrine / An Argument.” There are parents on one side of Pecknold, children on the other. Since he’s neither, he (like many of us who are young and between child- and adult- hood) feels purposeless. The descending harmonies work like an emotional/existential crisis in motion. The album’s centerpiece and title track explores the sadness of not finding our place or purpose; the lonely Cat Stevens-ish waltz “Lorelai” dreads others finding no place for us as well (the line “I was old news to you then…” is the most devastating). Across the second half of the album Pecknold describes the glorious “terrible sunlight” and the night skies. But these remarks aren’t a folky obsession with nature as much as a dread of these uncheatable signs of the passing of time.

Luckily Fleet Foxes have found the next best thing to never getting old: never forgetting. They hold onto details, stretch moments to last forever. The way Robin describes his love in “Bedouin Dress” works well with the violins — the strings pulls at the song, help it linger long after it’s over. Tick-tocking clock rhythms on that song or the echo on “Grown Ocean” also stretch time. It makes every banal detail and sensation — washing “chalk” from dirty skin, running your hands through a dog’s fur, feel mystical, supernatural, important. Dynamic shifts do this as well: just listen to how “The Shrine / An Argument” travels from Pecknold alone, to harmonies, to a single thin guitar, to skronking angry saxophones. There are a lot of instruments and voices in these songs, but instead of feeling overwhelmed, it simply makes you and Pecknold feel less alone. A two-person harmony ends the album. But it’s comforting, that extra voice.

As you read in the Progress Report, this album was delayed by illness and touring; it weighed on the band and on Pecknold. It took a while to get here. That you can feel the weight of that time inside Helplessness Blues is what makes it so good.

Helplessness Blues is out 5/3 via Sub Pop/Bella Union.

Comments (55)
  1. Fleet Foxes, the “James Blake of folk.” Fuck yeah. Don’t apologize for that.

  2. I’m with you. I would say lyrics are the greatest improvement from past releases to this. Direct, honest lyrics with some small details really make the album feel tangible while those dynamics make the album otherwordly. I think the restraint shown on this album is an absolute achievement.

    There aren’t the big hooks and there aren’t as many panoramic moments, but it makes the melodies all the stronger. Dropping the electric guitar down in the mix and focusing on the folkier sound really works splendidly.

    An immediately enjoyable album with lots of emotional punch. Love this work!

  3. I am someone’s dad, and I’ve been known to put on some America. And yeah, when I hear these tracks it makes me feel good in exactly the same uncool way. We’re gonna get really chummy, I think.

  4. I can’t wait for the Double Take at the end of the year. ;)

    • I wanna dislike but like this at the same time, thats halrious

    • Haha, well said. I was reading this review thinking, this is way too positive (despite the oddly worded first paragraph) for stereogum. Seeing as how they lashed out at the “mainstream, over-hyped” arcade fire in that joke of a double take, I’m sure someone will come back with their thick rimmed glasses and explain why this album actually is garbage. I started reading stereogum because it wasn’t pitchfork, but have pretty much stopped because they are trying to hard to become that.

      • I like this album but I also am wondering if the Double Take will be the negation of all of this gushing. That being said, I don’t think it’s not coming from somewhere. We’ve all waited so long to see what Fleet Foxes would put out, and the excitement when you first hear something and DON’T hate it, the comfort we feel when they DON’T go all out there and throw in some bleeps and bloops, might cloud our vision at first. But isn’t that what Premature Evaluation is about? Hype can ruin an album for us, and I think that’s normal.

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  5. I can’t help feeling it’s kind of a shame that there’s all this discussion of ‘cool’. Quality should be the only judge, and you do only mention cool to state its irrelevance, but it still feels like you’re making excuses, like ‘cool’ would be the first category a music fan would judge a record on. But I guess that’s the nature of the discussion of the medium. Anyway, I’m gonna wait for the release date or an official stream, but it sounds like there’s a lot to look forward to.

    • I haven’t listened to Helplessness Blues yet and I’m not making a comment on it with it.

      People take what’s in fashion into account because if a style of music has really gone out of style, there’s usually a reason for it. Maybe it’s been done to death and there’s no room for originality within its confines, maybe something newer has made it feel less vital or relevant to the larger conversation, maybe artists that lack quality or authenticity have co-opted the sound and it now conjures negative associations. And if something’s particularly in vogue, sometimes it’s really just a hollow fad, but sometimes if there’s an explosion of a new, “cool” sound it’s because it’s unexplored territory without the weight of decades of music in that style to live up to, or maybe because that sound really speaks to what a lot of people are experiencing now.

      Obviously just listening to what’s “cool” at the moment is a bad way to decide what music you like, but I don’t think quality and coolness are completely independent variables either. I imagine a lot of people who follow current music don’t do so just because they’ve explored every record made in human history so far and just need more material, but because they want to witness music as a conversation/exchange between a lot of different groups as it unfolds. To me, if there were only one band in the world, no matter how much quality their music had, it wouldn’t be very interesting because there wouldn’t be any context. And for something to consciously defy what’s in vogue is just as much an statement on what’s cool.

      • You make some excellent points – but I guess there’s also a level of irony required for ‘cool’ to exist, and that kind of irony separates the artists from their work in a way that means that the substance of their songs isn’t as important as the fact that they are making songs; it almost doesn’t matter what the songs say, what they mean, or whether that meaning is sincere, as long as they are new and give off the right appearances. I think that for music to truly speak to its time, or to be in a meaningful conversation with other music, it has to be honest, and the irony required for bands to be ‘cool’ insists on a level of detachment from the music that can accommodate dishonesty. It may be a symptom of a post-modern malaise in which no signifier can ever always be read as intended, so nobody wants to stand by their lyrics or music choices too much. In that climate it takes a certain kind of bravery to be sincere and I respect the Foxes for that. Also you are right about the conscious defiance of ‘cool’ as a statement in itself, also you are right that just because something is ‘cool’ it can’t be honest. I only regret that when ‘cool’ becomes a primary standard of quality or relevance, music is created to be ‘cool’ before it’s good.

  6. What the fuck is cool and who the fuck cares?

    I give this album a 9.2741328 and I think this is a pretty good evaluation

  7. This album is phenomenal. I give this a 9.98732435235132/10

  8. Because after all, nothing is perfect

  9. Except you Wesley Hodges ;)

  10. Yep, the album’s as good if not greater than their debut, “Sim Sala Bim” is such a fucking great song.

  11. I would probably say this album is better than debut. I think the solo Pecknold with just him on acoustic are amazing. Lush tones, bro. Lush tones.

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  13. I thought “white-bread folk rock” may have been done after Bon Iver worked with Kanye so I am glad its back.

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  15. “Personally the goal was to be a little more reverent of certain folk influences, rather than perverting them by putting them in too much of a pop context, or making them sound slick, which is how I sort of feel about the first record now. As you said, it had a traditional “aesthetic,” but not much of the substance of that older stuff. And there’s a lot of stuff on the record that isn’t like these songs at all. The Simon & Garfunkel comparisons are interesting to me because the only bands I had in mind when making the record were the bands I DIDN’T want it to sound like (stuff we got compared to last time)! Never thought about what it DID. Heh. Thanks for checking it out!”
    I think Robin Pecknold sums up the more traditional folk sound of his record best. This album was about finding their place in the folk tradition, it’s not as much of a rock album as even the last one was. Anyone who has followed his facebook or twitter feeds would have seen that he’s been listening to a lot of Jansch, Renbourn and the like. When he opened up for Joanna Newsom he played a lot of the new songs from the record along with traditional folk numbers.

  16. I don’t know if I can say this without a Stereogum Commenter hitting me on the head with their keyboard… but….

    Robin Pecknold kinda reminds me of Devendra Banhart a little bit. He’s got a good beard. Had long hair, and then cut it. Has a wardrobe of grampa-hand-me-downs, mainly cool argyle sweaters. Draws inspiration from some similar places, mainly Van Morrison. They both have this ethereal vibe about them, as if they’re more organic than earth itself.

    Robin Pecknold is just more easy for me to relate to, because he’s NOT a goofy crazy man with probable ADD.

  17. Is the music they’re making really uncool, or is this just something being said as a way to manufacture “authentic?” All the touchstones here, Simon & Garfunkel, Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, etc., are all acts that have been referenced over the past ten years in some way, shape, or form? Paul Simon specifically has found a new relevancy among indie kids, ranging from S&G first appearing on the Garden State soundtrack to Vampire Weekend’s referencing of his solo work as an influence.

    I also don’t see how this music is somehow “less cool” than a group like Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes who shamelessly pilfer from many of the same uncool influences, and stretch themselves even farther out there by referencing even more reviled genres of music like country with their debt to the Carters.

    The last MGMT album also embraced ’60s/’70s folk and psych weirdness flute solos and other stuff that was self-consciously uncool.

    This also isn’t taking into account the indie world’s sudden infatuation with ’70s/’80s soft rock. One of the dudes from Tim & Eric just released a straight-faced love letter to yacht rock, and Tigercity sound like they just stepped out of the soundtrack to a cheesy ’80s comedy. Or the sudden love for early ’90s smooth R&B with everything from the lo-fi dinginess of How to Dress Well to the straight-up weirdness of Autre Ne Veut.

    Basically, the new cool is to embrace genres of music that are looked down upon by most people. I don’t know if this is a self-conscious reaction to the fact that what were once seen as abrasive sounds are crossing into the mainstream (post-punk and indie being co-opted by shit like Neon Trees) so now people are making music that they know no one can respect, or it’s all just an elaborate joke, but a lot of people have been flocking to sounds that even five years ago would’ve been scoffed at. I’m not saying any of this is bad, just that the Fleet Foxes aren’t necessarily making an “uncool” album. They’re still pretty much in line with what’s happening right now.

    • i don’t know why someone thumbed down this comment. good points!

    • THANK you for mentioning Tigercity. Those guys deserve some more airplay. Pretend Not To Love is a stellar EP. Also, ditto on all your points — well said.

    • quite agreed, its a lot of manufactured affect. there is nothing more ‘cool’ these days than being ‘deeply uncool’. but it doesn’t even apply to the actual music so much as how famous of a person you can get to sympathetically say how ‘uncool (ie, cool)’, you are…

  18. Grown Ocean should totally have been the theme song to Inception

  19. Haven’t heard Helplessness Blues yet (holding out for release day) but wanted throw Destroyer’s Kaputt into this uncool/cool genre discussion. 80s soft-rock isn’t considered ‘cool’ like witch house, dubstep, or whatever new microgenres are trendsetter-approved today, but the songwriting on Kaputt is so strong, all the genre tropes associated with 80s soft-rock become secondary to the songs themselves.

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    • I heard Pierre Lamont’s dad started the budget clothing retailer Lamonts and he lives in a palace in the south of France. Based on this information that I just made up, his blog comments have lost all credibility.

    • You’re one of those persons who hates Vampire Weekend because they went to Columbia, right? And the Stones are rubbish because Keith Richards went to a good school. Get fucked.

    • Aw, he said “cred.” Cute.

  21. It’s a good album! After a few listens, I think i like it even more than the first.

  22. i love this album so much. its so ethereal, the only other thing i can compare it with is “astral weeks”. and this whole uncool/cool garbage debate? fuck it. all music is cool unless its just utter shit. there should be a debate about whether something’s cool or if it’s shit

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  24. fleet foxes reminds me of The Wilderness of Manitoba. anyone else have the Summer Fires EP?

  25. best album of the year so far

  26. will people PLEASE stop using the term ‘witch house’? please? there is no such thing. thank you for your time.

  27. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

  28. This write-up lost me in the first couple sentences. Yikes.

    Anyway, in spite of the fact that I’ve only listened to it once, I think this album is much much stronger than their first. The first one was pretty good, but felt a little weighed down by its style and aesthetic and except for “White Winter Hymnal” which was kind of magical, it seemed like style over substance. This one has a much lighter, more honest tone and feel to it. And it’s great.

  29. fresh new original Folk rock with female singer: mojostone.com

  30. robin been loving him some apples at innisfree…

  31. First listen I wasn’t crazy about it. Subsequent listens have really endeared me to this album. I really love Montezuma and Lorelei. As usual, beautiful stuff from Fleet Foxes.

  32. He played a lot of these songs opening for Joanna Newsom (Montezuma, Sim Sala Bim, Batterie Kinzie, Helplessness Blues, Someone You’d Admire, The Shrine, Blue Spotted Tail). They all sounded really great live, but I wondered how he was going to squeeze the band arrangements into his complex alt-tuning strum patterns. The band has more than pulled it off. Seems like there are a lot less of Skyler’s guitar leads on this album though (which I really liked). I think the band made a really bold artistic move by toning that and all the pop slickness back. This feels like a lot more of a “Robyn” record dealing more with his uncertainties and desire to find a place in the folk tradition. He sings lead on every song and even harmonizes with himself this time! The band recorded the harmonies in omni but I can still hear Robyn’s voice above the others (I could hear the bassist a lot more on the first record). I’m really glad I went to go see Robyn on that tour. I was just getting into Joanna Newsom at that time, so it was a bit of a gamble as to whether I’d like the show. I’ve listened a lot to Joanna’s record “Have One on Me” since and I think the critics barely scratched the surface of a lot of the themes (Alcohol, Birth, The West, Clothing/Femininity) and lyrical greatness.

    Is it just the dad-folk influences that Stereogum thinks are uncool or is it the whole earnestness/Existentialism thing?The questions Robyn brings up on the record are ones that we all have to answer. Dealing with uncertainty is a major theme of the album.

    P.S. If you watch Nardwuar’s interview with Robyn you’ll find that his Dad was a local musician and not a wealthy software programmer.

  33. The Fleet Foxes were around LONG before Jim Blake. Maybe Jim Blake is the Fleet Foxes of dubstep, bokay?!?

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