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.