The Anniversary

Helplessness Blues Turns 10

Sub Pop/Bella Union
Sub Pop/Bella Union

When Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut came out in 2008, the band found themselves thrown into a sudden, shocking amount of success. The album moved a ton of copies — especially compared to what most indie bands would sell — and the band was warmly, feverishly embraced by the press and fans alike. That kind of ascension can be dizzying, disorienting. Robin Pecknold was still in his early twenties, and his band took off well beyond any of his expectations. That’s the kind of success that makes the ever-present sophomore pressure that much heavier. Fleet Foxes had a lot riding on their second album — a chance to prove this wasn’t a one-off, a chance to build on and expand the sound fans already loved without doing a retread of the self-titled. Would history confine them to this one trend in this one moment, or would they solidify an identity compelling enough to transcend all that? Any time you read an interview with Pecknold back then, you knew he was thinking about all of this. You knew the weight he was putting on himself to follow Fleet Foxes.

It took longer than he anticipated. Once upon a time the band wanted to quickly release a successor in 2009. Constant touring kept them from that. The goal shifted to 2010, though they had to accommodate then-drummer Josh Tillman’s solo tour. At another juncture, Pecknold had to rest his voice for a few months after getting sick. The band also scrapped a finished iteration of the album in favor of completely starting over. It cost them $60,000, the kind of story that starts to depict an artist being driven mad by the demands of matching or surpassing one of the most acclaimed albums of its time.

When that sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, finally did arrive in May of 2011 — 10 years ago today — you could feel all the toil and obsession that went into it. Pecknold lost a relationship because of how consumed he was making the album. It was that kind of creative process. For a time, maybe Helplessness Blues made it look like that was all worth it. Years later, it seems like one chapter in a much longer story for Fleet Foxes, where anxiety and a search for meaning completely altered the arc that could’ve once been set by the self-titled.

Musically, you could readily hear all the labor that went into bringing Helplessness Blues to life. The album was simultaneously subtler than its wide-eyed predecessor and just as muscular and vivid. Pecknold tried to deploy the band’s trademark harmonies more strategically and sparingly, making the album’s biggest moments hit with that much more of a payoff. Along the way, the music was more sophisticated and textured than ever, whether the lone violin languidly dancing around “Bedouin Dress” or the electric guitar flares that tinged the second half of the title track, or how the distance sketched between something like “Sim Sala Bim” and “The Cascades” found Pecknold tapping into a more global array of folk traditions. All the tumbling drums and sighing melodies were still there, but they were now led by a Pecknold who was becoming a more powerful singer and a cannier arranger. At least on a stylistic level, Helplessness Blues seemed to make good on all the promise of this young band. It didn’t abandon their sound, but kept just the right things intact while broadening their scope to just the right extent.

Pecknold was also writing lyrics in a different way. After the allusions and fantasy landscapes of Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues was more personal, grounded in a quarter-life crisis of sorts. “So now I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?” Pecknold asks at the very beginning of the album, in the opening lines of “Montezuma.” This set up the stakes of Helplessness Blues: Pecknold, now a young indie world wunderkind, had his life transformed wildly. But even when you achieve something that seemed like a dream, you can find yourself not all that changed. You can end up asking what it is you are supposed to be doing with your time here, how you can contribute, how you can help other people. Those are natural enough questions to be wondering about in the middle of your twenties, in the early days of adulthood. The whirlwind Pecknold had gone through only seemed to amplify them, and the record that came out of it did little in terms of finding any answers.

The other key passage arrived in the title track, at the core of the album: 

I was raised up believe I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

On one hand, that was Pecknold figuring out a bigger calling, perhaps. He continued: “But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be/ I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see.” At the same time, there was a sense of burnout, that putting this music out into the world and having it make such an impact came with some high psychological price. By the end of “Helplessness Blues,” Pecknold was dreaming of a simpler kind of life, working in an orchard until his hands were raw and sore. He might’ve been a famous and beloved musician, but he found himself in the same place that a lot of laypeople do when that quarter-life crisis hits — beset by the realities of adult life, and dreaming of being able to pare it all down, get away from it, find some peace and quiet and leave your worries behind.

There are moments across Helplessness Blues that otherwise suggest a sort of spiritual drain — not just from the excruciating process of making the album, but because of all the noise that had developed in Pecknold’s life and its repercussions. When he sings “I was old news to you then” in the chorus of “Lorelei,” it’s one of the sadder depictions of how a relationship withers, one person distracted and the other growing bored.

There’s a heartbreaking but cathartic scene later, in the multi-part epic “The Shrine / An Argument.” After the song’s gorgeous, alluring first passage, it intensifies — Pecknold pushes his voice the closest to a roar we’ve ever heard from him, howling, “In the ocean/ Washing my name off your throat!” All these years later, it might be the album’s most powerful moment, a smaller but more resounding example of how you age and start to realize the people you will lose, the people who will choose not to be a part of your life anymore. The second half of that song infamously collapsed into a bunch of choked, sputtering saxophones — a bracingly experimental turn relative to what people expected from Fleet Foxes at the time. Helplessness Blues thematically could end there, a breakdown of communication, the chaos of garbled words and thoughts. It tried to right its own ship: The album instead ends with “Grown Ocean,” a thrumming and beautiful song that, just maybe, offered some kind of solace or sunrise at the end of the album’s frayed emotional journeys.

On some level it was a victory. Helplessness Blues blew apart any fears of a sophomore slump. But on the other hand, while the album led to more touring to more rapturous fans, to another avalanche of accolades, none of that seemed to settle what was brewing within Pecknold. All the existential wrangling at the core of Helplessness Blues set the stage for the temporary implosion of Fleet Foxes, a long period when Pecknold seemed as if he might have retired from making music altogether.

You know the story now: Pecknold stepped away from music for a spell, instead pivoting to a more traditional route. He enrolled in college at Columbia, and he spent years occasionally popping up but otherwise out of the picture. The music landscape shifted again and again, not just with micro-trends stylistically but also in how we distribute and consume music. By the time Pecknold returned in 2017, he was wading into a murky and fragmented streaming era. His music was more out-of-time than ever, and the album he reemerged with was full of challenges.

All those years in the wilderness seemed to offer Pecknold less clarity than even on Helplessness Blues. Crack-Up was the long-awaited, perhaps impossible third Fleet Foxes album, but it was not a triumphant return from an old voice of comfort and awe. Crack-Up found Pecknold deeper in the shadows, anxiety and depression and longing conveyed through broken arrangements and more weathered music. Nearly 10 years on from the first Fleet Foxes an album, a project that once seemed bucolic and joyful had wandered into much different terrain. Clearly whatever had begun on Helplessness Blues was not resolved by the six year interim.

Where it may have been resolved was on last year’s gorgeous, stunning Shore. When Crack-Up came out, Fleet Foxes fans were confronted by the unexpected reality that the saxophone breakdown in “An Argument” was not an outlier but a preview of where Fleet Foxes would go. Crack-Up was a divisive album, but ultimately a far more entrancing and complex achievement than the earlier Fleet Foxes albums. At the same time, while it was musically rich, it didn’t seem like the resolution to Pecknold’s young adulthood that many fans may have wished for — for him, or for themselves after relating to either the burgeoning anxiety of Helplessness Blues all those years ago, or to the crash landing of Crack-Up in its moment. Instead, there was something approaching an answer on Shore — an album that acknowledged some of these things can never be fixed, but you can seize happiness, stability, in the moment.

In that way, there’s an arc from Fleet Foxes through to 2020, but Pecknold’s story also inevitably splits into distinct halves. These new albums are bigger, bolder — even with the lack of as much hindsight, the latter-day Fleet Foxes music feels more enduring and less burdened by its situational context. But they are also albums of hard-won conclusions. Looking back at Fleet Foxes’ career so far, Helplessness Blues is the end of the innocence, full of searching but hinting at how dark things could get in all our lives as the years go on. Revisiting it now — while many Fleet Foxes fans may be alongside Pecknold in their thirties, knowing how the band’s story unfolded from here — produces a funny pang. Part of you might yearn for even the simpler days of Helplessness Blues, a more conventionally pretty album that was still coming from enough of a youthful perspective to just start grazing against the big questions of life; on the other hand, nobody necessarily wants to retread the long, arduous journey that follows. Helplessness Blues presents an old version of Pecknold, and it might recall the old selves for those of us who found these albums then. Ten years later, Helplessness Blues becomes less about reclaiming those days, and more a reminder that a long while after introducing these questions, you can get somewhere better.

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