I've been craving a new album from Fleet Foxes for what has felt like eons. Their self-titled debut full-length released in 2008 came out at a point when I had been rather discouraged with new music for several months, and it's delicate harmonies and re-imagined contemporary folk charm stole my heart and gave me hope. However, ever since that album became a comfortably worn in favorite, I've yearned for more.
Finally, at the beginning of this year Helplessness Blues, the single that also lends the new album it's title, was released as a free download. Oh, be still my beating heart! A song ripe and full of Fleet Foxes signature vocal harmonies I love so much and classically simple guitar, until an unexpected but perfect switch in tempo and tone halfway through the song. The unconventional song structure saves it from being just another catchy folk rock song or sounding too much like a repeat from the first album, and somehow also perfectly conveys a duality of emotion that appeals to me. As the lyrics that mention toiling away happily in a orchard, I would hum the song to myself at work and distract myself from the rough patch I was going through. Music is such a comfort to me, and I cannot love and thank a band enough that makes a song I can add to my internal soundtrack. Much appreciation out to Fleet Foxes.
Of course, I went to my local record store and picked up a copy the full album, Helplessness Blues, at the first week of May when it came out. I haven't been able to stop listening to it, but I'm still forming opinions about it. Overall, I like it lots. It's gotten good reviews, topping charts, and selling well, so apparently the authorities and masses alike agree. It takes more chances than the previous album. On average the songs are longer, and consequently have more time to develop, explore, and be more than just their expected parts. Fleet Foxes are definitely growing as band, which I like to see. After taking three years to put out a new album, and after infamously scraping almost all the original takes of these songs, any material released that wasn't thoughtfully crafted, brilliantly recorded, and a step forward in skill would have been a serious disappointment. They have kept much of what fans love about them, while trying new, less safe sonic elements and forms.
For the most part they succeed, though I have my doubts around track 10, The Shrine / An Argument. Epically over eight minutes long, and ending in an enigmatic minute and a half of free-form horns and strings, it's still a little too weird for me to quite wrap my brain around. It might work if that was the end of the album, but it springs right back into a minimalist singer/song writer ditty and thirty seconds of silence, Blue Spotted Tail, before finally finishing with Grown Ocean, a much more standard number with a slow build of brassy drums, that is until it culminates in a few a cappella lines that abruptly stop mid sentence. Maybe the problem is that I've been mostly listening to this album in my car. The last album was a car album, for road trips through forests shrouded in mist. This album might be more of a bedroom album, for listening to on headphones while lying on your back starting at the ceiling. It's also probably an album I'll appreciate more in five years.
Of course when all's said and done, I like the album and can't stop listening to it. I love the opening lyrics of Montezuma coupled with simple instruments that let them shine. I find the fullness and orchestration of Bedouin Dress and Battery Kinzie to be fantastic. Songs like The Plains / Bitter Dancer and Lorelai sound similar to their earlier work, but are more fully realized. And, The Cascades is a beautifully brief instrumental interlude continuing a fine Fleet Foxes tradition of referencing mountains ranges. Success! In the end, so far I can only conclude that Fleet Foxes still have the talent and sound that makes their reputation well deserved, and Helplessness Blues is a worthy new purchase for your music collection.