Fleet Foxes Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues
Their first album and the “Sun Giant” EP were (for some) almost religious experiences. Fleet Foxes managed to couple commercial success (more than half a million albums sold) with critical acclaim and become, almost overnight, the best folk band of the moment. The cult started in 2008 and since then, the band, who strayed from the path of free-folk to take a turn towards pastoral Americana, seemed to go extremely quiet. Little have we heard from over the past three years. The details about “Helplessness Blues” have been coming on little by little. Robin Pecknold said that their second album would be less poppy and could even turn out to be “pretty boring to most people”. There was also talk of a strong influence, not so much sonically as conceptually, of Van Morrison’s unforgettable “Astral Weeks”. But up until two months ago, very few new sounds were revealed.
The release was delayed more than necessary. It was expected for early 2009, but, among other things because the first sessions ended up in the bin, the Seattle band chose not to force things and not give in to pressure from the media, whom they appear quite fed up with. In the end, the good news is that the magnificent results heard on “Helplessness Blues” have not been affected by the difficulties the band have had to overcome. The record sounds impeccable. It shows the level of exactingness of a band that take things seriously. As if they were gold diggers in the mines of old America, Pecknold and company have found the most valuable nuggets to shape this album. An album as complete and serious as their debut, on which they’re true to their style and reinvent themselves as necessary. Listen to the crazy sax at the end of “The Shrine / An Argument” –raw and robust like “Oliver James”– and you’ll understand that the road to new stylistic horizons could be at least thorny.
In general, “Helplessness Blues” is less immediate but it oozes forms that are equally sacramental. The music, the “impotence blues”, sounds very wise and transmits spiritual peace. It’s healing in a powerful, transcendent way. The drive of some old songs like “While Winter Hymnal” is missing, but everything sounds so much in place, so beautiful, that it’s impossible to resist. The smoothest songs are the ones that are easiest to listen to, like the waltz filtered by a flute of “Lorelai”, the solid chant of “Bedouin Dress” or the mysticism of “Blue Spotted Tail”. The rest of the ideas –of which some are complex, like on “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”– become better over time, like good wine. The lyrics, with a strong existential tone, talk about youth and old age as the sides of the same coin, and also about vital changes that are obstacles to overcome. Some examples of this metaphorical voltage are tracked by the star of “Battery Kinzie”, who gets up one morning to find himself old, all of a sudden, like Benjamin Button, by the one of “Sim Sala Bim”, who carves his initials in a tree, or images like on “The Shrine / An Argument”, kids throwing coins in a well while they make wishes, of which they still don’t really know the meaning.
The most impressive is how the whole lyrical grid is presented, sung by an angel of just 25 years old, who seems to know all about brotherhood and who tells the things with the delicate power of the best poets. Pecknold sings, and everybody shuts up. If he wasn’t already, he’s now the band’s main star. In fact, sometimes “Helplessness Blues” sounds more like a record by a single singer-songwriter ( “Someone You’d Admire” and “Blue Spotted Tail” almost sound invisible) than by a band (of which there are moments, too: devastating gems like “Grown Ocean” and “Battery Kinzie”). In any case, it’s obvious everything is in the right place with Fleet Foxes. The drive of harmonies and melodies as well developed as Beach Boys, the serene instrumental parts in the vein of The Band, the vocal candour of the Simon & Garfunkel school. The strong points remain indestructible and, as a band, they keep moving away from classic aesthetes like Vetiver, becoming increasingly unreachable like Midlake, though they are right to not use all their instruments at the same time (unlike Midlake) and let the music breathe. Because with Fleet Foxes, the magic comes from purity, and beauty is free. And this doesn’t sound stolen from anywhere or anyone.