Like the Fleet Foxes’ debut LP and EP before it, Helplessness Blues is a meticulously arranged campfire sing-along pitched somewhere between The Beach Boys’ waves of harmony and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s cottage-porch jams. The Foxes’ 2008 debut may be too good to improve upon, but Robin Pecknold and his fellow travelers have more than avoided a sophomore slump. Helplessness Blues is imbued with a renewed urgency, anxiety and internal tension — precisely the moods that carry us through the pains and gains of aging and growth.
Helplessness Blues begins and ends with an anxious pulse, but it’s the title track that best conveys the album’s sometimes frenzied dialectical movement between genuine country romanticism and a more distanced, self-aware channeling of the pastoral. In one grand crescendo, the strums and personal ruminations of “Helplessness Blues” shift from hushed to frantic, intimate to harmonized. The five-minute epic closes with a slowed, extended bridge that take us back to Pecknold’s relatively unadorned voice for one last evocative line: “Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.” A rich man’s existential blues, the title track is an earnestly ironic paean to the illusions of greener grass and sturdier meaning on the other side of the fence that surrounds anyone intent on being an artist, not just a craftsman. In the eminently quotable first set of couplets, Pecknold instructs us: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”
Whether it’s a cubicle, farm or corner store that’s calling (Pecknold later proclaims: “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore / And you would wait tables and soon run the store”), what’s dawning on him is that finding oneself is relational. Properly understood, it involves looking outward, and positioning and immersing oneself — not tangling oneself in the deception of solipsism. In an age of lost faith in an externally imposed order that gives us our meanings and which it is our task simply to traverse, Pecknold is taking stock; and he is offering up a musical resolution that draws on deeply rooted tradition without fleeing the modern burden we all feel to create anew. On a narrow psychoanalytic reading, Pecknold is projecting his anxieties about artistic influence, commercialization and following up a great first album. But on another level, he is conveying the tugging to and fro — in life as in art — between the desire to submit to a framework of expression that stands firmly beyond oneself and the feeling that one must generate one’s own orienting universe.
For all the passion in Pecknold’s subsequent plea that “I don’t know, I don’t know who to believe,” he doesn’t wallow in doubts. “What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?” When Pecknold sings “And I know, I know, you will keep me on the shelf,” he implicitly breaks down the dichotomies he has been fretting over — those between innovation and tradition, art and craft, agency and structure, individuality and collectivity. For the question arises: Just what of Pecknold might we the listeners keep on our shelves? The labor he would put into the production of our assembly-line commodities, were he to become a cog in our mass production machines (or a farmer growing our fruits, for that matter)? Or his voice, in the digital formats by which we currently store the latest Fleet Foxes recordings — along with the unending stream of new music ready for quick and easy consumption? Like most great folk and pop music, Helplessness Blues is both the singular performance of unusually gifted artists and just one more ephemeral expression in an evolving language that all of us share with the generations of the past and future.
If it’s all the same, though, I’m glad Pecknold and his compatriots have chosen the recording studio over the factory or the fields. We worriers in the echo chamber of modern cultural capitalism could do much worse than Helplessness Blues. From the vocal harmonies to the steel guitars, tympani, and winds, Fleet Foxes continue to give rich and varied textures to their consistently tight harmonic structures and memorable melodies. As partakers, creators, and functioning cogs in this era’s great machinery, they’re up there with the best.