It’s been a three year wait for Fleet Foxes fans. The massive success of their self-titled debut album in 2008 elevated the Seattle band, whose sound is rich in harmony, folk-inspired and earthy. The lush vocals are accompanied by acoustic guitars, keyboard and drums, refreshingly organic in an industry increasingly dominated by technology and electronics. Pastoral themes, lyrics about meadowlarks and mountains and melodious music give Fleet Foxes a gloriously summery and uplifting effect that has won a lot of critical acclaim and made expectations for Helplessness Blues very high.
The album begins with ‘Montezuma’, a promising start that indicates Fleet Foxes haven’t made any dramatic changes in style. Robin Pecknold’s distinctive voice soars above the guitar-driven accompaniment with ease; the lyrics and vocal harmonies are warm and wistful. ‘Bedouin Dress’ veers a little too close to cheesiness, but the undeniable quality in the writing just about saves it.
The first single, ‘Helplessness Blues’, is brilliant, memorable and the stand-out track, five minutes of beautiful harmony and upbeat guitars which just gets better with the change of time signature about halfway. Lyrics about orchards are poetically evocative of dappled sunshine. This is an example of where the strummed, lively style that is more pronounced on this album really works – it’s dynamic and spirited.
‘The Cascades’ is an instrumental track, an intricate sounding weave of simple lines of music, pretty but nothing special. ‘Lorelei’ is a lovely track, with a picked chordal accompaniment on the guitar and blurry wind instruments that entwine with the vocal melody. The lilting time signature carries the lyrical melody and there’s a nicely delicate xylophone line cutting through the texture. The following track, ‘Someone You’d Admire’, is my favourite; a simpler, more emotive track, short but much more effective, using little more than a guitar and Pecknold’s voice.
‘The Shrine/An Argument’ is frustrating; it opens ingeniously, quietly and mysteriously, with a soulful melody that surges with a bluesy rise for the lyric “sunlight over me no matter what I do”. The latter half of the eight minute track is ‘An Argument’, the last two minutes of which are unnecessarily experimental and discordant to the extent that it’s unpleasant to listen to. ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ is calmer and subtle, much more typical of the band and a relief after the end of the previous track.
Helplessness Blues doesn’t have as many memorable tracks as Fleet Foxes’ first album, though it doesn’t fail in any significant way. I personally prefer the dreamier tracks of their debut, such as ‘Sun it Rises’ and ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’; this is more grounded and direct, but wisely doesn’t drift far from Fleet Foxes’ folky comfort zone. Catch them on their short run of UK tour dates in June, or at Glastonbury if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket!
Good: Pretty, dreamy, will strike a chord with fans of the band
Bad: Fleet Foxes do not stray outside of their comfort zone