Three years in the making since their praised-to-the-heavens self-titled debut, Helplessness Blues is a masterpiece of a sophomore offering, consisting of everything that made Fleet Foxes a standout record for its generation - let alone year - and at the same time expanding upon the band's signature sound.
Frontman Robin Pecknold's painstaking adherence to songwriting during production of Helplessness Blues has been well documented and his persistence shows: at just under fifty minutes long, the record flows from choral folk to Southern Gothic ballad, right on through to free jazz and fingerpicked blues. Opener "Montezuma" features rolling electric guitar reverberating alongside Pecknold's rich, definitive vocals. The perfectly-mixed backing chorus are less ubiquitous than on Fleet Foxes, perhaps wisely, as the band avoid being pigeonholed as "that band with the harmonies". Followed up by the hook-laden "Bedouin Dress" with its cheeky fiddle trills and sidestick pops, it's unfairly catchy and beautifully crafted.
Fleet Foxes was a record laden with imagery and storytelling, conjuring pastoral scenes of nature and solitude as though taken straight from Keats and Wordsworth. It's fitting here that Helplessness Blues is a wider-ranging album, taking in a global surrounding even in its song titles ("Sim Sala Bim", "Montezuma", "The Plains / Bitter Dancer", "Grown Ocean"). It occasionally feels odd to hear references to modernity among the often-nostalgic lyrics, but lines like "you would wait tables" ensure that proceedings don't get quite too twee.
"Battery Kinzie", perhaps the first song to begin "I woke up this morning" that isn't a blues ballad, carries a kind of Enya-esque string accompaniment, reminiscent of her "Orinoco Flow" but retaining its dignity. "Lorelai" is a lush sequence of "Here Comes The Sun" era Harrison guitar laced with Brian Wilson choral overtones springing from every chorus.
"The Shrine / An Argument", at eight minutes long, is the band's most explorative song to date, and features an impassioned vocal delivery from Pecknold that sees him snarl the unassuming-sounding "Sunlight over me no matter what I do" then immediately follow it up with the daintily-phrased "apples in the summer all cold and sweet". Before the song can get too carried away with itself it takes an "El Condor Pasa"-esque Appalachian detour and concept (with a small C) album self-referencing lyrics to earlier tracks on the record. It's challenging for the lazier fans who just want to hear some Beach Boys melodies, and hugely rewarding, particularly the lengthy free jazz saxophone (?) outro.
It's easy to peg a band given this level of hype as overrated and undertalented, but in some cases this kind of praise is merited. Don't write them off as a "genre band", don't drop them in the hipster bucket, but instead open your ears and listen to the sound of one of the most exciting, interesting, intelligent and beautiful records of the past few years.
9.0 / 10
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