Once again, the focus of the band is singer Robin Pecknold, whose chilling tenor dominates the sound and makes every lyric sound bittersweet. On Helplessness Blues, his voice is complemented by reverb-heavy layers of vocal harmony, acoustic and electric guitars, and minimalist percussion, plus the occasional piano,flute, and strings. Overall, the album’s folky sound recalls Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and The Grateful Dead circa Workingman’s Dead, with echoes of their contemporaries in Grizzly Bear.
The lyrics on Helplessness Blues are straightforward, intelligible, and linear narratives, mostly love songs filled with regret and nostalgia, loneliness and sorrow. There are no trace of irony or cleverness, though a line in “Bedouin Dress” may allude to the way the band relies on musical appropriation. “If to borrow is to take and not return/I have borrowed all my lonesome life…the borrower’s death is the only regret of my youth.”
Fleet Foxes – “Battery Kinzie”
Elsewhere, Pecknold sprinkles his lyrics with historical and literary references. The opening song “Montezuma” incorporates the most famous line of the official hymn of the U.S Marines, an odd choice for a neo-hippie band but one that fits with the album’s spiritual aesthetic. A more obscure military reference, “Battery Kinzie,” refers to a fortress in Washington State, where the band lives. ” Sim Sala Bim” is a nonsense phrase made popular in the 1940s by Harry August Jansen, a Danish-born entertainer who performed the world as “Dante the Magician.” Last but not least, two songs reference “Innisfree” the lake that inspired William Butler Yeats to write his famous ode to solitude and seclusion. The allusion fits with the album’s celebration of nature and on the penultimate song’s disdain for the city as a place of “fortune and bile.”
While most of the 12 songs are a pop-friendly three or four minutes, several experiment with length and form. ”The Plains/Bitter Dancer” begins with a two minute instrumental in which layers of guitar, vocals and percussion swell and build over a bass drone before they climax, then morph into an acoustic ballad. Similarly, the title track consists of two separate halves in different time signatures. The most ambitious is “The Shrine/An Argument,” an 8-minute hodgepodge of four sections that shift style, genre, instrumentation, time signature, and mood as the lyrics move from gentle parable to dramatic breakup scene to an ode to nature.”Green apples hang from my green apple tree/They belong only to me.” The song’s final two minutes feature a screeching free jazz saxophone solo, a rare moment of chaos in an otherwise tightly scripted album.
Fleet Foxes – “The Shrine/An Argument”
If “The Shrine” is a version of The Beatles Abbey Road medley, then the penultimate song, “Blue Spotter Tail,” is their version of Her Majesty, an earnest acoustic song in which Robin sings a series of stylized existential questions, such as “Why in the night sky are the lights hung?” “Why is life made only for to end?” and “Why this frightened part of me that’s fate to pretend.”
The band rejoins Pecknold for the closer, “Grown Ocean,” an upbeat and triumphant dream of a reunion with a lover. For the final verse, the instruments stop and the foxes sing a capella, a move that highlights their vocal skill and ends the albums on a note of yearning.
Fleet Foxes – “Grown Ocean”
While the Fleet Foxes have crafted a solid studio sound, the warmth and pristine quality of their music is best experienced live. I first saw them upstage Blitzen Trapper, one of their last gigs as an opening band. Seeing them perform Helplessness Blues this summer should be worth the ticket.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include albums by Frank Ocean, DeVotchKa, and Lykke Li as well as Robin Pecknold’s solo EP. He was raised up believing he was somehow unique.