Album Review: Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

by Steve Seel

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (Courtesy of Sub Pop Records)

Somewhere, at some point, something changed. It was undoubtedly the whole Vietnam/Nixon/Watergate axis, a triple-whammy of disillusionment that came on the heels of the earlier one-two punch of the MLK/Robert Kennedy assassinations. Eventually, the sense of hope, of possibility, of revolution, that had given birth to the hippies, to flower power, to massive upheavals in culture, society, music, art, language, to an explosion of mind-expanding change that felt like the universe itself was cracking open and finally, surely, there was freedom, hope, a future of a thousand beautiful sunrises—one day, that future was gone. The future that was glimpsed in shafts of sunlight and expressed musically in the vocal harmonies of CSNY and Yes and The Mammas and The Papas, the summer-of-love lyrics of Scott Mackenzie in "If You're Going To San Francisco," the Indian-modal-sitar experimentations of George Harrison and The Moody Blues on In Search Of The Lost Chord, that future was snuffed out, left behind for good, dead, buried, filed away with one final, resigned exhalation: the death of a dream. And with that dream, an entire vocabulary of music died as well. Not the dialectic of hope itself in pop music, but a kind of innocence as it was expressed in music in that particular time, from the late '60s to about 1972.

The intervening years have produced a kaleidoscope of sounds in pop music, from the plastic soul of Bowie to the thump of disco, from the snarls of punk to the bloated gestures of arena rock to the blurps and beeps of Kraftwerk and Devo and a thousand other musical forms. But through it all, a certain kind of sonic language lay hibernating beneath it— not dead after all, in fact, but sleeping in amber.

When I listen to the music of Fleet Foxes, I hear something that I haven't heard since I was a very young boy. I want to be clear: I am not suggesting that Robin Pecknold or his band is seeking to commune in their own music with the socio-political-religious wavelength I described above. In fact, I'm not going to deal with the lyrical content of Pecknold's songs (you can stone me later). To me, it's far more fascinating how this band has re-harnessed a sound that, it seems, hasn't even been attempted in over 40 years—and not only that, that they've done it with such an equally (and stunningly) anachronistic lack of irony. It's like Pecknold somehow opened up a wormhole in time, stepped into 1968, and came back two weeks later genetically altered—turned into a man who had never heard any of the music that has been created in the past four decades, and attuned like a savant to the aesthetic gestalt of a singular moment in musical art.

At this point, you'd be within your rights to ridicule me for foisting this load of pompous hoo-ha upon you. OK, fine. Indeed, I've not even discussed the record itself. Have I even listened to it? Oh yes. Over and over and over again. Helplessness Blues is just as wondrous as Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut and Sun Giant EP, and then some (a bit more adventurous, with a slightly broader palette of choices in arrangement and production) but in all, it sounds like a second sun inhabiting the same sky as the debut LP. A massive, orange, radiant thing, gleaming with burnished harmonies and beating down on sumptuous aural meadows and hillsides, an emotional headspace summed up by Pecknold's line in the title track (okay, here come some lyrics after all): "If I had an orchard, I'd work 'til I'm sore." You can not write a line like that, and set it to soaring folk-rock like this, and exist in the same headspace as the prevailing musical language of the past 40 years. Elsewhere, I imagine reviewers entertaining themselves with derisive mocking about music made in barns redolent with ganja, guitars festooned with daisies, and a band oh-so-preciously mining a vein best left sealed forever. Sure.

To me, Fleet Foxes are welcome visitors from a musically benevolent dimension, from a time when rock and folk and country and pot and hallucinogens and love and the wonders of the multi-track recording studio were coming together in a spirit of innocent and earnest exploration and expression. Whatever you think of the supposedly rosy, bleary notions of peace and love and the whole quaint we-are-stardust-we-are-golden thing that gave rise to that music, that sound was gorgeous. To my ears, it's very, very nice to hear somebody speaking that language.