For Robin Pecknold and his Seattle-based folk band, the arduous making of Helplessness Blues has hardly been characterised by rising suns, Quiet Houses, and red strawberries in summertime. A quick glance at its title is enough to tell you that.
But I guess a lot can happen in 3 years to change one’s perspective on life. Back in 2008 a happy-go-lucky Fleet Foxes captured the world’s imagination with their sparkling self-titled debut album, brimming with cheery, highly inventive indie-folk. So powerful was its effect on me back then I even recall, at the tail-end of one particularly late night, sinking into my duvet with the album strutting its merry way across my consciousness and vividly seeing these simple tales of woodland folk come to life in front of my very eyes. Oh, the wonder of dreams eh?….
Pecknold had planned to follow up this surprise hit in quick-fire time, and recording began for their second album the very next year. However, such was Pecknold’s strict perfectionism, he came away utterly dissatisfied with these sessions and ended up scrapping them at a cost of $60,000. Next came the strain Pecknold’s painstaking efforts put on his relationship, which ultimately resulted in his girlfriend of 5 years deciding to walk away from it all.
It really shouldn’t be this stressful, coming up with such elegant and uplifting melodies as these. But maybe, on the evidence of Helplessness Blues anyway, it hasn’t been such a bad motivation. The struggle has meant Fleet Foxes have come back with extra steely resolve, keenly felt in Pecknold’s meditations on the topics that were plaguing his mind in the build-up to this release.
First song Montezuma lays down this new, deeply contemplative tone right from the get-go: “So now I am older than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, now what does that say about me?” The title track, grandly anchoring the centre of the album, is another prime example, with Pecknold lamenting how he grew up believing he was somehow unique, “like a snowflake, distinct amongst snowflakes”, but now merely regards himself as a cog in some great machine. Much weightier ponderances than those of three years ago and they load this album with a much darker and self-critical core.
The sumptuous harmonies we all fell in love with are still there of course but, rather than follow Pecknold’s lead word for word, they now take more of a back-seat, supplementing his melodies with a back-drop of oohs and ahhs. And we still get the evocative swellings of strings, but sounding fuller and more expansive than on their debut. I see them as the folk-rock equivalent of Arcade Fire these days actually, unleashing these splendidly structured juggernauts, laden with nostalgia and deeply personal meaning.
There are many moments to savour; the violin interludes in Bedouin Dress, Pecknold’s stunning vocals in the opening to The Shrine/An Argument, fragile instrumental The Cascades, and the enticing nature of Loralai’s central hook, to name a few.
All in all, it’s as enriching as we all dreamt it would be. But here comes the $60,000 question: is it as good as the first? I’m going to say noooooooo, not quite. The debut incorporated a blissful escapism that the potent and very real dilemmas being touched on in Helplessness Blues naturally don’t provoke. Yet it was the debut’s very escapism that won me over initially and, after being an attentive audience for Pecknold as he gets things off his chest here, I do often find myself fleeing to the innocent, stress-free forests of the first album for relief.
Still, an incredible achievement, considering all the strife involved in its creation, and easily the best folk outfit around right now. Oh, and apparently Pecknold’s girlfriend was so won over by her ex’s efforts in her absence that she has since come scuttling back. So in the end, it seems, everybody wins.
Ch-Check It Out If You’re Partial To – barnstorming indie-folk; their debut; albums with a troubled back-story; hearing what definitely sounds like seals being massacred (the climactic stages of The Shrine / An Argument); albums with the power to win back women
Fantastic Track – Lorelai