And so it is, we find ourselves again at the dreaded potential of a sophomore slump. For better or worse, every artist that’s released an even semi-solid debut has to face it at one point or another. And it’s a strange event in an artist’s career. There’s a very slim chance of landing in a gray area: Either you fail, or you flourish. If you fail, all isn’t lost, and you can eventually make it back to success. But if you beat the slump, you’re basically set, and the rainfall of praise comes down in sheets.
Make no mistake, when the joyous “Best of 2011” season rolls around, this is one album that will be aggressively vying for a place near the top. Their 2008 self-titled debut was one of the strongest of their musical generation, and they’ve fittingly decided to chase it with one of the strongest sophomore records of their generation. Helplessness Blues is nothing if not awe-inspiringly triumphant.
What began as a small machine of simple, loveable folk with an emphasis on impeccable vocal harmonies has evolved into a full-fledged melodic folk monster. What caught the attention of most listeners in early 2008 was the vocal capability of Robin Pecknold. Pecknold’s tour-de-force performance was joined by a background of harmony vocals that complimented his lead in just the right way. The addition of already-established Seattle singer-songwriter J. Tillman on drums and vocals created an axis of completion that pushed the band to new heights. Showcasing their knack for vocal potency, it wasn’t long before Fleet Foxes were in the public eye, taking the independent music world by storm.
That same complex vocal harmonizing is still the band’s bread and butter on this new record, only this time, they take that palpable talent and construct instrumentals to match the intricate balladry. It’s not so much that the instrumentation on their previous release was sub-par, it’s just that it was constantly being outdone by how well the band fed off of one another vocally. This time around, a greater focus is placed on the musicianship, creating a balance that suits Fleet Foxes unbelievably well.
The album begins with “Montezuma”, a quick, fluttering, guitar-driven vessel that is shortly joined by Pecknold, who is in turn joined by Fleet Foxes’ signature harmonies, setting the precedent for the rest of the record. Fleet Foxes was filled with quick three minute folk songs that were unerringly sweet, yet very concise. Much to their favor, they have opted to take their sweet time on this outing, the average runtime for each song coming to almost four-and-a-half minutes. Within these longer, bolder songs, the music is so consistently good it’s tough to place an accurate “best moment.” It could be anywhere. The slow build of “Sim Sala Bim” would be a good candidate, but so would the immensely catchy, driving rhythm guitar on “Helplessness Blues”, the ardent chorus of “Lorelai”, or the ambitious eight minute epic “The Shrine/An Argument”, particularly when Pecknold literally screams “Sunlight over me, no matter what I do!”
One could conceivably make a valid argument for every track being the pinnacle of the bunch. But the conclusion would always go something like this: There are very few lows on this album. Sure it may drag a bit in the transitions, and it might pivot abruptly (“The Plains/Bitter Dancer” is the main culprit in this category) here and there, but they took a calculated risk in molding a broader sound for themselves. And, as with every risk, there come a few inevitable shortfalls. But at the end of the day, this is an earnest sophomore effort, filled almost to capacity with unmatched musicianship.
It sort of goes without saying (though here we are saying it), that this record will be a success. Fleet Foxes produce an accessible sound that has caught like a wildfire, and this is one of the more hyped and advertised (see: the banners of every musically-inclined webpage right now) releases of 2011. Platinum bells are ringing. But marketing and hype aside, it’s going to be a success because the music sells itself. It takes very little arm twisting to get someone to lend a free ear to Fleet Foxes. Pecknold tells stories in the first person in such a way that he can sell it like Springsteen. Never once does the listener have to stop to muse on the fact that this is a band from Seattle singing folk hymnals about longing for their days at Innisfree. They have created a dynamic so enthralling, one can’t do anything but believe it, and enjoy believing it.
The record comes to a close with the duo of the beautiful, subdued “Blue Spotted Tail”, and the booming victory lap that is the moving, cogitative “Grown Ocean”. It’s at this point that the listener will look down at their iPod (or similar music playing device) and stare in wonder at how it could possibly be over so soon. Forty-nine minutes and 53 seconds has never passed so quickly. It’s an album that makes you sad that it’s not longer; sad that it can’t just go on forever. This sentiment alone should indicate the caliber of album Fleet Foxes have created in Helplessness Blues.
Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.