Album Review: Helplessness Blues

During the breakdown of the title track of Helplessness Blues, the second LP from Fleet Foxes, we get the affirmation that this is undeniably Pacific Northwest music. After a flurry of blistering guitar and mile-a-minute thoughts, the men in unison proclaim, “if I had an orchard I’d work ‘till I’m sore”. They didn’t dream of a farm, or of an acre, or even of a coastline. Being the Seattle men that they are, the image of an apple orchard seems to be the pinnacle of peace.

I hope that these guys do eventually get their orchard, because their new album is full with childhood regrets, uneasy questions about the future, and some angelic self-loathing. The first line, backed by a Dylan-esque strumming pattern, goes as such: “So now I am older/than my mother and father/when they had their daughter/now what does that say about me?”

While the lyrics are on par with grunge forefathers Nirvana and Soundgarden, the composition is more evocative of southern hymnbooks, and the perpetual harmonies roll off like an Appalachian Pet Sounds. On their graceful ballad “Someone You’d Admire”, lead singer Robin Pecknold declares, “after all is said/and all is done/God only knows which one I’ll become”. A lot of what Pecknold sings sounds like a declaration, but even when he muses upon his past or his current position, it sounds like he has come up with thoughts worth pondering.

The first half of the album is underwhelming after the strength of “Montezuma”, the first track. “Battery Kinzie” starts to sound like Christian folk, and though its harmonies are near flawless, it’s not the Foxes’s most reliable asset. The most emotional moments on the album are the softest, especially on “Blue Spotted Tail” and “Someone You’d Admire”.

It picks up dramatically midway through on the title track, however. The first four bars of lyrics already sound like an instant classic of proletariat literature, but it doesn’t even come close to Pecknold screaming: “I don’t need to be kind/to the armies of night/that would do such injustice to you”. His aspirations are admirable, and though he affirms he doesn’t exactly know what he’s going to be, he leaves the impression that it’s going to be something good.

“The Shrine/An Argument” unnecessarily softens the mood of hopefulness, but the final track, “Grown Ocean” swoops it back up with a flutter of flutes (the best sound on the entire album) and harmonies that are distinct and soaring. “Grown Ocean” is run through the forest (or orchard) music and a fitting ending for a consistent, thoughtful, and often superb album.

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