After almost three years, a number of blind alleys, recording studios and some failed experiments with what the frontman Robin Pecknold describes as “non-songwriter type music” Seattle’s Fleet Foxes finally found a home to record their second album in, a water-side studio where Nirvana put together Bleach.
Whatever about those musical detours, Fleet Foxes have slipped back into that comfortable woollen jumper of ’60s/’70s folk that they wore on their hugely successful debut. Since that album there has been a notable upsurge in folk-referential bands (Mumford and Sons, Stornoway) but there was something in the breadth of both their debut and the Sun Giant EP that twisted folk phrasing and harmonies with a more contemporary, ‘accessible’ song structure. A complicated way of saying that people sure liked it, but were maybe not sure why.
On Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes have laid out 12 tracks, from two to eight minutes long in their quest to create a great contemporary folk album, but presumably still within the limelight that’s shone on them since 2008. A warm, welcoming opener is found in ‘Montezuma’. A low, plucked guitar and Pecknold’s familiar high voice ponders ageing and existential things, all supported by those familiar harmonies and some subtle percussion. With the talk of dowries and “oh my oh me” cries, you know where and what era you stand in.
From here the first half of the record runs through some pleasant, but perhaps less considered songs that largely have a cheerier tempo. They hit a merry canter but often let themselves down with a lazy chorus (‘Battery Kinsey’) and the middle part of the first half is somewhat lacking in the creativity they have previously shown.
With perhaps a nod back to ending side one of a vinyl with impact, the title track lifts things straight up out of the mire with some simple urgent guitar and a clear lyrical idea of being “a functioning cog in some great machinery” and how it may prove more satisfying that the endless quest for uniqueness (surely not an X-Factor reference?). It breaks beautifully, three minutes in and a gentle swirl of varied instruments take us in another direction with talk switching to orchards and “the man on the screen”. It’s a meaty song, musically and lyrically, and one which could easily keep a mind busy for a pleasant while.
Flip the imaginary vinyl over and the renewed vigour is kept running. Doubtless listeners will find their favourite songs in the last seven. There are some touching examples of restraint and simplicity (‘Someone You’d Admire’, ‘Blue Spotted Tail’) and these songs with just Pecknold and his guitar are far removed from the earlier, more ‘retro’ sounding tracks. It’s almost like the band stop trying to be folkies, and just write and play for themselves. Nestled amongst those is the eight-minute, three-act ‘The Shrine/An Argument’ which is almost an EP in itself. More talk of apples appears but in the middle third you get an all-too-brief taste of all this long hair getting let down, a pulsing acoustic change of pace with a melody you could easily live with for another 10 minutes, though we’re back to the apples and heavy thoughts pretty quick. They leave us at pace with the chirpy ‘Grown Ocean’ – a simple and upbeat end with some Arcade Fire DNA.
Helplessness Blues takes some time to worm in and different parts of it catch you on different days, though perhaps not as many moments as you would expect from the first half, which drags a bit. Pecknold has talked of the objective to bring some of Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks to the structure of the music and album. Morrisson’s album was famously recorded in just three sessions and perhaps some brevity, instead of the three years Fleet Foxes have had, could have trimmed out the excess. This aside, the album has some carefully crafted songs of introspection and a few brave adventures, albeit it within their chosen folk parameters. Though once in a while, it feels like Fleet Foxes have a Kid A of a kind in them somewhere.