Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop, 2011. 50 minutes)

Based in Seattle, Washington, Fleet Foxes is a folk rock band lead by vocalist Robin Pecknold. In addition to Pecknold, Skye Skjelset, Josh Tillman, Casey Wescott, Christian Wargo, and Morgan Henderson comprise the full band lineup. Fleet Foxes released their self-titled, full-length first album in 2008 to much acclaim. Helplessness Blues is the band’s sophomore effort.

Hate the Art, Not the Artist

During my undergraduate years, I enrolled in a philosophy of art class. With a foundational principle based in the ad hominem fallacy, my time in this class reinforced the idea that one should never evaluate the merit of art through the life of the artist. In other words, Hitler’s paintings are not atrocious because Hitler was a mass murderer; they are dreadful because the quality of Hitler’s paintings is amateur.
While Fleet Foxes’ frontman Robin Pecknold has nothing in common with a megalomaniacal dictator, my relationship with him as a child was sour to put it nicely. We did not get along then; I am sure if I spent a day with him today, we would not get along now. Sometimes, people don’t relate well.
I mention my former acquaintance with Robin because it provides me with every reason to dislike his band. Since I had trouble relating to him as a friend, shouldn’t I reject his band in principle?
While negative interactions typically lead to full-scale rejection of someone’s professional pursuits, the fact that I thoroughly enjoy Fleet Foxes is a testament to the quality of the music. Even though I have every reason to ignore this band, the fact is: Fleet Foxes is really good.

Sophomoric

Ultimately, Helplessness Blues is a record that I hope everyone buys. Yet, I find that the record defines the stereotypical sophomore release. When a band finds success with a debut album, the sophomore album becomes a rather difficult bump in the road to greatness. For many artists, the success of the first record demands that the second produce a similar sound. But, if the sophomore release is too similar, it suffers from unoriginality. If the record is too unique, it isolates the fanbase.

Helplessness Blues attempts to retain Fleet Foxes’ signature harmonies and acoustic-based instrumentation, but add deeper lyrics and a fuller sound. Although I appreciate the attempt, I contend that the second album falls flat.

Lyrical Identity

First, despite my reservations around the lyrics in the debut album, the lyrics on Helplessness Blues seem forced, as if Pecknold wants to be perceived as a deep thinker. Questions of purpose and the possibility of changing one’s life provide an underlying theme throughout the record. “Montezuma,” the record’s opening track commences with a big statement. Pecknold sings,

“So now I am older / Than my mother and father / When they had their daughter / Now what does that say about me?”

The album’s title track, “Helplessness Blues,” echoes similar sentiments:

“I was raised up believing / I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes / Unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking / I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery / Serving something beyond me”

In both instances, Pecknold draws on a sense of regret, an idea that life is not what it seems. Whether questioning his age or his profession, Pecknold understands that life is more than an occupation.
However, I find his lyrics inauthentically deep.  Even though his poetry takes a step forward from the previous record, his observations could use some more artistry. Put bluntly, I find myself asking why these statements are important. To that question, I do not hear an answer.

Mourning the Musical Hook

Second, the instrumentation on Helplessness Blues takes a step backward. What made Fleet Foxes’ self-titled record a masterpiece was a devotion to melodic hooks in the music itself. As Pecknold’s voice floated around the instrument with unusual melodies, the instruments countered with hooks of their own.
With Helplessness Blues, the instruments replace melodic hooks with ambience and varied instrumentation. Where the self-titled release focused on clean, reverb-soaked guitar, Helplessness Blues finds dense sonic textures.
Although I appreciate sonic density, I believe instrumental melodies offer the bedrock of truly great music. Typically, it is easy to compose a song full of chords; it is difficult to write melody into the musical instruments.
Stated simply, I really enjoy Fleet Foxes despite not getting along with the front man so many years ago. Moreover, Helplessness Blues is a good record. Its lyrics and sonic textures, however, keep the record from shining as brilliantly as the debut. For this reason, Helplessness Blues offers a rather sophomoric second release for Fleet Foxes.

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