This was originally written for The Courier, which I’ve just finished editing. Forever. Good night, sweet, proof-read prince:
You can say a lot with an album cover. Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut revealed the band’s character, with depictions of rustic, pastoral life and religious imagery all bathed in the glow of the watching sun. If we take the same approach to the cover of Helplessness Blues, things seem a little more confusing three years on. That busy image of humanity is certainly still present, but in twisted form, and that sun sits at the centre now, unfamiliar, almost alien.
That’s exactly the feeling that reveals itself in the sound of Helplessness Blues. This is their trademark sound; lilting, harmony-laden, but with new purpose. Singer Robin Pecknold opens the album (on ‘Montezuma’) with, “So now, I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now, what does that say about me?” These are no longer stories about people and their actions, these songs are questions of what it is to be a person, and all the uncertainty that can bring. This is manifested in shifts throughout the album, with the gentle Simon & Garfunkel-esque acoustic plucks of ‘Sim Sala Bim’ giving way to the echoing choruses you’d expect of the band, before dropping away again and building to a wordless, furiously strummed outro. Some songs end prematurely, with ‘Someone You’d Admire’ seeing Pecknold questioning his dual personality and admitting ‘God only knows which one of them I’ll become’ – the song mirrors his indecision, ending soon after with as little resolution as Pecknold himself seems to come to.
Helplessness Blues is an immaculately constructed affair, on the surface providing more of what the fans were after; beautiful, fragile folk songs. But look deeper and there’s a new introspection present, reflections of turmoil that weren’t present on the first album. Fleet Foxes have almost imperceptibly changed, but it’s that image of the sun that returns again in the eight-minute breakup saga of ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ – in the first time we’ve heard Pecknold’s voice crack, he shouts ‘sunlight over me, no matter what I do’. That warmth of Fleet Foxes’ music is still there, but it has new, darker implications, and is all the more interesting for it.