Three years ago, Fleet Foxes floored me with their self-titled debut. Their sun-soaked harmonies were impeccable, frontman Robin Pecknold’s lyrical imagery evoked wide-eyed wonder, and the songs got better with each passing listen.
The band sold more than 200,000 copies of their debut album in the U.S. alone in 2008 and topped influential music web site Pitchfork’s top albums list. They also played “Saturday Night Live” and sold out shows across the globe.
So it would have been understandable if their sophomore effort was not as sharp. The expectations were much greater. And, as others have mentioned, the band came so fully formed that it was hard to imagine them improving their sound.
Yet, Fleet Foxes’ second album, Helplessness Blues, does not succumb to any potential pitfalls. It is a remarkable work bolstered, like its predecessor, by its harmonies and clean sound, as well as Pecknold’s more deeply introspective lyrics this time around.
Pecknold is clearly trying to determine his place as a “functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me,” as he sings in the title track.
Some artists blessed with critical and commercial success early in their career would be satisfied. Not Pecknold. He is fascinating because he comes across as a humble, considerate everyman who just happens to have a stunning voice.
On the opener “Montezuma,” Pecknold views his life through the prism of his parents’ loving relationship, and realizes he has fallen short.
“Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?” he asks, a warm current of “whoa-oh’s” sung in the background.
Imagery and dreams are integral to Helplessness Blues. On “Battery Kinzie,” one of the album’s standouts, Pecknold’s recollections are Kafkaesque.
“I woke up one morning, all my fingers rotten,” he sings. “I woke up a dying man without a chance.”
Pecknold’s voice soars above the insistent mid-tempo percussion with a sheen that recalls his vocals off “Ragged Wood” on Fleet Foxes’ debut album. The band members’ voices mesh wonderously at points during the song, particularly when keying on the word “alone,” wrapping it in a warm blanket.
Fleet Foxes also excel in song structure. They have a talent for fusing what seems like two different song sketches into one cohesive song. Case in point: “The Plains/Bitter Dancer.”
This song begins with voices rising to disorienting levels before an acoustic guitar emerges from the choral whirlwind. Pecknold’s imagery here is menacing and ominous, and is often backed by drummer J. Tillman’s tense cymbals and a shrill flute.
“I should have known one day you would come,” Pecknold sings. “All of us walk so blind in the sun.”
Around the four-minute mark, the instruments exit and Pecknold and his bandmates lift their voices on high. The clear-throated nature of their vocals recalls monks chanting.
“At arms length I hold you there …. THERE-ERRRR,” the band sings, before launching into a glorious symphony of harmonies, acoustic guitars, and light percussion. It is one of the most glorious moments of the band’s career to date.
That dovetails into the title track, arguably Fleet Foxes’ best song … period. It also has two distinct halves.
Pecknold initially wrestles with self-doubt before deciding “what good is it to sing helplessness blues?” It is driving acoustic rock, rousing and raw.
The second half of the song soars, albeit in a different way. The driving acoustics are replaced by climbing vocals and Pecknold’s desire for something simpler.
“If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore,” he sings, as the band joins in to lend what could be described as a cloud of sighs parting to expose the sun.
Pecknold’s worries about finding his place take a different shape on the waltz-y “Lorelai.” He repeats several times, “I was old news to you then,” a reflection that could relate to any number of relationships — a lover, a friend, a fan, etc.
Viewed through the prism of Fleet Foxes, it is another gorgeous tune that recalls Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Western film composer Ennio Morricone.
“The Shrine/An Argument” gives me goosebumps. It’s eight minutes of majestic twists and turns. The song explodes amid a dirge of acoustics and demonstrative percussion.
“In the morning waking up to terrible sunlight,” Pecknold announces. We soon find out why waking up is so terrible. “When you talk you hardly look in my eyes,” he sings, a kind of dead-eyed desperation dripping from his breath.
On any other album this might be the highlight. On Helplessness Blues, it’s one of the five or six best moments. Yet, if you’re like me, your favorite moments of the album will alternate according to the day.
Fleet Foxes’ sophomore effort closes with “Growing Ocean,” a waking dream of a song that sounds like Pecknold is gliding above a magical forest as he sings. You really have to try hard not to smile while listening to this uptempo rustic gem.
“In that dream I’m old as the mountains, still as starlight reflected in fountains,” Pecknold recalls. His lyrics are nimble, skipping along to the flute flourishes that dot the song’s landscape. By song’s end, the dream’s end is nigh. Two merging voices deliver the closing plea, “I will wake one day, don’t delay me.”
Listen to Pecknold. Don’t delay hearing this album.
Helplessness Blues is scheduled for release May 3 on Sub Pop. Fleet Foxes are playing a sold out show May 1 at Crystal Ballroom in Portland.