If thoughtfulness is a quality becoming all too rare in mainstream music, rejoice in knowing that it still thrives in the fringe realm of bands like Fleet Foxes. The Seattle-based folk group returns with “Helplessness Blues,” their second full-length album and the first release since 2008. Echoing previous efforts, “Fleet Foxes” and “Sun Giant,” with its multi-instrumental baroque folk sound and faultlessly blended choral harmonies, “Helplessness Blues” nonetheless bares traces of greater maturity and emotional exploration.
It is the high-pitched, honey-laced vocals of frontman Robin Pecknold that initially lure you into the opening track, “Montezuma,” as he sings, “Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love/ Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me/ Oh man what I used to be.” But the band quickly reminds listeners of their ability to evoke rich folk imagery in aural scenes of sprawling countryside and peasant gospel. A balance of soft, melodious acoustics, subdued drums and clanging tambourines set the tone for an album that is strangely radiant in its sorrowfulness.
The band’s songwriting talent is more evident than ever in “Helplessness Blues,” where each track embodies a comprehensible thought, moment or sensation in Pecknold’s doubtful existence. Fleet Foxes reveal themselves as storytellers in tune with the written word, and there are no superfluous lyrics to be found. A recurring theme of encounters with personal mortality and presumed insignificance pervades the album’s 12 songs, and most certainly the title track: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct amongst snowflakes…and now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be/ A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
Despite a sound that is so visibly defined, “Helplessness Blues” manages to avoid monotony in its arrangement, alternating between more low-key acoustic songs featuring Pecknold’s ardent vocal style and primarily choral tracks that layer glorious vocal harmonies over a breathtaking symphony of guitars, tambourines, pianos and flutes. Dual tracks like “The Shrine/An Argument” and “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” bounce back and forth between both styles, offering all of the band’s best qualities in one epic musical narrative.
The album is rich with lyric gems like “Battery Kinzie,” “Blue Spotted Tail,” “Lorelai” and the reflective “Bedouin Dress,” where Pecknold apologetically sings, “If to borrow is to take and not return/ I have borrowed all my loans from life/ And I can’t, no I can’t get through/ The borrower’s debt is the only regret of my youth.” By the final track, “Grown Ocean,” you exit “Helplessness Blues” in the same way you entered – with high expectations of what may come next.