May 2, 2011

Douglas Martin usually uses the phrase “helplessness blues” to describe confused supermarket customers.

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

These are the opening words of Helplessness Blues, delivered within the first ten seconds of lead track “Montezuma”. Robin Pecknold, the 25-year-old frontman and songwriter of Fleet Foxes released a self-titled record that sold over 400,000 copies worldwide, was the Album of the Year for both Pitchfork and Mojo (and likely quite a few other outlets not as far-reaching), and has made his band the most popular Seattle group since Seth Cohen was having existential freakouts over Death Cab for Cutie tickets on network television. And yet, having success far beyond his wildest dreams and creating the type of record destined to be raved about by proud grandfathers in forty years turns into the image that makes Pecknold wonder if time’s running out for him, if he’ll ever be able to build a family of his own. “Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love? / Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?”

Helplessness Blues is about a lot of things, but mostly it’s about the uncertainty about the legacy people leave when they’ve passed into the unknown realm that is known to some as the afterlife. It’s about the uncertainty of what someone you used to know is doing once they have left your life. Over the bouncy acoustic picking of “Sim Sala Bim,” the band harmonizes the lyrics, “Are you off somewhere reciting incantations? / Sim Sala Bim on your tongue / Carving off the hair of someone’s young,” and splinters off into a vigorous folk jam, but not before Pecknold solemnly reminisces, “Remember when you had me cut your hair?” There are far more questions than answers in “Helplessness Blues,” far more wistful, solitary wondering than neat, happy endings.

As lush as Fleet Foxes was as a record– and even the Sun Giant EP, which was recorded well after but released before the full-length– Helplessness Blues finds the band (now expanded to a sextet with last year’s addition of Morgan Henderson– he formerly of legendary Seattle post-hardcore band Blood Brothers) settling into a more expansive sound. Case in point: At their warm-up show at the 300-capacity Columbia City theater, the six musicians were flanked with no fewer than 25 instruments, ranging from organs and pianos to the upright bass Henderson used for most of the show.

Though they know the essential lesson of knowing when to sit out (two songs feature Pecknold’s voice and acoustic guitar, entirely unaccompanied– and they serve as the two most naked and vulnerable emotional moments on the album), their prowess shows in grand scale on the record, as they seamlessly shift from the piano-led thump of “Battery Kinzie” right into the 60’s folk-leaning epic “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”. The interesting thing as Fleet Foxes as musicians is that for all of the acclaim surrounding their harmonies and timeless pop melodies, the band never lets a motif linger for too long; Fleet Foxes songs are built in suites and movements rather than the standard verse-chorus-verse format. I’m definitely not trying to say that Fleet Foxes isn’t a pop band, it’s just that they pay far more attention to the structure of their songs, building something inherently more considered and substantial than a lot of their peers. They could have milked the soaring, spine-tingling chorus of lead single and title-track “Helplessness Blues” for all it was worth, but instead, they change the tempo and add an equally affecting second movement to the song. Their lead single.

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you could see
Now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me

On the first listen of “Helplessness Blues,” those first two lines stick out. It brings back memories of how most of us were raised, complete with the somewhat-hokey way your parents would say it to you when you’re young. But Pecknold, in every outlet of his expression, from his songs to his prolific tweets, has this distinction of unfiltered earnestness. It’s reminiscent of that friend everybody has who is really nice, smart, funny, and interesting, but possesses the kind of sincerity that would make him “uncool” to people who care about  shallow things like coolness.

But after those lyrics comes the chorus, the kind of chorus that sends goosebumps running through your skin until you’re completely covered. The second-half of the above lyrics hint at it, and the chorus exposes what is probably Fleet Foxes’ greatest asset to contemporary music. It’s a lot like what Nitsuh Abebe wrote about Animal Collective: a lot of the time, you are gobsmacked by the feeling that what Fleet Foxes do serves a far greater purpose than just being “a good band”. Their harmonies carry inklings of worship; their songs feel like hymns unsure whether there is a greater power at stake, but willing to try to reach that greater power anyway.

Then, in the second movement, Pecknold rejects the notion of being a well-known artist, settling into a simpler life and feeling his heart grow from the pleasure of a hard day’s work. “If I had an orchard,” he sings with his bandmates backing him, “I’d work ‘til I’m sore.” And then, the rattling guitars, tom-tom drums, and the emotional uplift all shift to the side, while Pecknold delivers the album’s most vulnerable moment, sounding every bit the kid who wants the life that he has, the life he himself probably dreamed of in the sprawl of houses flooding the Seattle suburbs where he grew up.

Someday, I’ll be like the man on the screen.

Download:
MP3: Fleet Foxes – “Helplessness Blues”

From Fleet Foxes

MP3: Fleet Foxes-“Mykonos”
MP3: Fleet Foxes-“Sun Giant”