Since the rapturous reception received by their eponymous debut album back in 2008, Seattle-based sextet Fleet Foxes have found themselves between something of a rock and a hard place. Garnering both widespread critical acclaim and commercial success, Fleet Foxes was an album so fully realised that it seemed to leave the band with little room for improvement. The remarkable thing about the band’s long awaited sophomore record, Helplessness Blues, is that Fleet Foxes have managed to maintain their musical identity without merely repeating themselves.
The weightless vocal harmonies that steadily build and recede atop the finger-picked guitar on opener Montezuma would have sat happily alongside White Winter Hymnal or Quiet Houses on the band’s debut album. Indeed, all of the characteristics of Fleet Foxes’ previous music are abundant on Helplessness Blues, the songs unfolding organically like mini suites with warm, almost baroque arrangements of mandolins, acoustic guitars and woodwind. Despite its similarities to the band’s previous work however, listening more closely to Montezuma does reveal a tangible shift of focus from first album Fleet Foxes.
‘I wonder if I’ll see faces above me, or just cracks in the ceiling,’ ponders lead singer Robin Pecknold as he imagines his death bed, the emotionally direct lyrics in stark contrast to the pastoral meanderings that made up the majority of Fleet Foxes. Throughout Helplessness Blues the spotlight is placed firmly on Pecknold as he explores themes of loss and alienation, providing an emotional contact that was lacking from the band’s occasionally clinical debut. Whilst one could argue that many of the melodies on their debut were more instantly memorable than anything here, Helplessness Blues displays a new depth to Fleet Foxes’ music.
This is a welcome addition that keeps the album from sounding like a tired retread and instead transforms it into something entirely new.