Fleet Foxes’ “Helplessness Blues”
As we reach the end of the year, we look at one of our favorite records from 2011.Grafton Tanner
out of 10
May 3, 2011
Helplessness Blues struggles with death (something starkly evident and sure) and life (that other thing, confusing and destined to end). With the release of their self-titled record, Fleet Foxes sounded like a communal noise, the celebration of life and death and love and everyone together under the glow of a mountain sun. Death and loneliness lurked in the wings but were outspoken by the poignancy of natural order and personal relationships. Helplessness Blues unleashes the beast of death and loneliness and telescopes everything Fleet Foxes had to offer. Gone are the sounds of haunting monastic choirs that made Fleet Foxes famous. Here is Robin Pecknold singing peculiarly alone with the band behind him. Whimsy mixes with dread and death, and
the band fixates on escape, on outrunning the specter of death and musing on the reaper’s unannounced arrival.
“Montezuma” is not an opener like “Sun It Rises,” the confident, sure-footed intro to Fleet Foxes. “Montezuma” is as anti-climactic as Pecknold’s realization of death itself, that when the lights go, we are left gazing at the cracks in the ceiling. “Bedouin Dress” also does very little to orient us in the context of the album. It seems the opening tracks all point toward “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” which in turn re-routes us to “Helplessness Blues,” a piece altogether disarming and vulnerable. But this does not mean we should discredit the first half of the record. The songs are snippets of what is to come. Beautifully whimsical snapshots of the mystical problems of love and loss. Pecknold makes his first of many mentions of Innisfree, a utopian isle written about by W.B. Yeats, in “Bedouin Dress.” His request to be taken to that magical place is honest and not desperate. “Sim Sala Bim” expounds on this notion of mystical places with its imagery of incantations and its two-step dance round the fire that closes the piece. It isn’t until “Battery Kinzie” that we are really given a look into the loneliness that pervades Helplessness Blues. Pecknold sings of rotting death over a crashing, monumental rhythm section and repeatedly mentions the “wide-eyed walker.” The lyrics paint the last attempts of life by a dying body, a zombie who realizes the limits of its loneliness in a world that has forgotten it.
As soon as “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” begins its haunting introduction, Helplessness Blues veers from its established course. With one song, Fleet Foxes manages to stake their claim as master harmonizers. It is also the first time on the album we are given a glimpse back into the sounds of Fleet Foxes’ self-titled release as pounding toms and tambourine intertwine with the reverb-drenched “oh’s” for which they are known. Suddenly, the song ends, the voices are removed, and a singular acoustic guitar surfaces. “Helplessness Blues” is a breakneck Simon and Garfunkel romp exposing the inner workings of Pecknold, and halfway through, Fleet Foxes do what they do best: break the pattern of the song and fly off in another direction. The epilogue is gorgeous, drifting, dizzy. The loneliness comes to a head with the final lines: “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.” An image is conjured of the recluse who spends every waking hour before the TV in an attempt to connect to the glossy world of Hollywood, to slip the skin and enter into the warm, fantastic world of the screen, the land of Innisfree that Pecknold focuses on.
Songs like “The Cascades,” “Lorelai,” and “Someone You’d Admire” illustrate Fleet Foxes’ mastery at their instruments. “The Cascades” is seriously one of the best instrumental pieces I have ever heard. It’s folk-laden, orchestral, psychedelic. And then there is “The Shrine/An Argument,” the multi-faceted and uneasy centerpiece of the record. The song’s prologue is divisive and bipolar as Pecknold shouts with frustrated passion, “Sunlight over me no matter what I do,” and then with patience and calm, he speaks plainly of the natural world and the orchard that embodies the perfect world he so wishes to escape to. “When you talk you hardly even look in my eyes,” Pecknold sings, his voice cracking ever so slightly. It’s terrifically powerful, bursting at the seams until the power is stripped away and a pack of wild saxophones squeak and honk in free-form cacophony. (Side note: the video for this song is beyond amazing. Check it out here).
Many questions appear in Helplessness Blues, the majority of which are unanswerable and are left hanging there in the silence when the record ends. In “Blue Spotted Tail,” Pecknold offers questions to the cosmos about the nature of man and his existence on a bleak planet spinning in space. It’s also his most honest critique of his and his band’s place on the wave of the most important artists around today. Most of Helplessness Blues occurs either in nature or in the fabricated nature of the mind, yet Pecknold makes mention in the song of his time in the city, a place where fame is presented and the nastiness of man becomes known. Pecknold’s connection to human life in this urban jungle is through the radio (“I head you on the radio, I couldn’t help but smile”). Like the TV, there is strange comfort in the radio and a supreme loneliness in finding companionship through a manufactured channel.
When the many rivers of Helplessness Blues reach the sea in “Grown Ocean,” we are off running with Fleet Foxes away from everything the world has to offer, every mundane promise and request. With valuable information on our tongues, running from the beast to tell of the dream that we have to tell, that we must tell to survive. It’s the most urgent song on the record, and one that leaves the listener with a combined feeling of resolve and open-ended anxiety. Pecknold speaks one last time of the walker, the zombie, and informs that he will one day wake from the incessant dream, the alluring prison of the mind in which the orchard stretches forever and ever.