“Helplessness Blues: A Mirror to Reflect.”
by Ananggadipa Ganeswara
Helplessness Blues is the sophomore effort of Seattle-based indie folk act, Fleet Foxes. It is the follow up to their critically acclaimed, commercially successful self-titled debut. In this album, Fleet Foxes decided to delve more into the conceptual aspects of songwriting as all of the songs on this album are tied to a certain theme. The album is also more instrumentally dense and far more intricate than its predecessor.
The overall theme of the album leans toward the subconscious angst that one might experience at some point in their lives. The ponderings that occupy the mind of a person trying to come to terms with adulthood and reality i.e. the constant search for truth and meaning and purpose and one’s place in the world. It captures the feeling of being overwhelmed with your own curiosities and being bewildered by the inconceivable nature of the world. It’s also about being speechless and dumbfounded by places, people, dreams, and all the nonsensical magic that envelopes the universe. It’s being confused and in love at the same time.
The record opens with Montezuma, a three-and-a-half minute track with delicate fingerpicking and Brian Wilson-style gargantuan vocal harmonies. It’s a very melodic song and a worthy introduction to this magnificent album. “I wonder if I’ll see any faces above me or just cracks on the ceiling. Nobody else to blame”, Pecknold croons with a gorgeous vocal harmony arrangement looming in the background. The album then progressed to the second and third track, Bedouin Dress and Sim Sala Bim. The former is a great tune with a swirling and catchy riff, while the latter features a great and visceral acoustic jam mid-song. At the time Fleet Foxes was still backed by drummer Josh Tillman who was undoubtedly an important component of the band rhythmically and harmonically, especially on this album. However, after the Foxes finished their Helplessness Blues tour, he left the group and started his own thing under the name Father John Misty.
In this album, every song stands on its own and it would be impossible to point a finger to a certain song. However, if one were to choose a song that would represent the album best musically and thematically then its title track would probably be a fitting choice. The song, Helplessness Blues is the sixth song on the tracklist and it also served as the lead single of the album upon release. In the song, Pecknold sings of the youthful longing to have a place in the world. He conveys his desire to have some sort of role in the world, to be a functioning cog in some great machinery, but that he is still very much conflicted as to what that role is. The world is too big and confusing a place and he turns to everyone and everywhere for answers only to find even more questions. As the song progressed he realized that he must seek the answers himself. “What good is it to sing helplessness blues? Why should I wait for anyone else?”, he sings. The song also has one of the most satisfying climaxes to be found in any song within the last decade which features the line, “If I had an orchard, I’d work ‘till I’m raw.”
The second half of the album started with a delightfully Simon and Garfunkel-esque instrumental number, The Cascades. It then proceeded to the waltzy, melodically-driven Lorelai which bears a little resemblance to Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around” off 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. Traces of Dylan can be found all over Fleet Foxes discography and the case is also true on this album, be it in the words or melody. In interviews, Pecknold himself has noted that his main influences ranged from Dylan to Beach Boys to John Coltrane, among others. The next song, Someone You’d Admire, features one of the most beautiful lyrical passages in the whole album.
“I walk with others in me yearning to get out
Claw at my skin and gnash their teeth and shout
One of them wants only to be someone you’d admire
One would as soon just throw you on the fire
After all is said and after all is done
God only knows which of them I’ll become.”
Clocking in at just over eight minutes, The Shrine / An Argument, is the longest song on the album. As the title suggests, it is made up of two parts. Holding the song together is a sense of eeriness and chaotic melancholy especially at the latter, more experimental half of the song. It is by far their boldest and darkest song on the album but that does not stop it from being chosen as the album’s second single, accompanied by an equally dark and visually stunning music video directed by Sean Pecknold, Robin Pecknold’s brother.
The penultimate track, Blue-Spotted Tail, is almost the total opposite of the previous track. It is a quiet, deceptively simple number featuring only Robin Pecknold’s voice and an understated guitar fingerpicking performance. Essentially, the song tackles the big, existential questions head-on with lines such as, “Why in the night sky are the lights hung? Why is the earth moving ‘round the sun? Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one?”. The fact that it is so instrumentally bare and yet heavy in substance is also poetic in itself. The album then concludes with the grand Grown Ocean, which is a track full of grace and yearnings. It’s a rather hopeful and fresh closer to the album.
Aside from the beautifully rich and complex instrumentations as well as song structures, Helplessness Blues is a very cohesive and thematically focused album which is why I think it is more superior than its predecessor, the 2008 self-titled album, and its successor, Crack-Up, released in 2017. Helplessness Blues is Fleet Foxes’ grand statement on youth and idealism. It is sincere, full of innocence, and naivety without ever being ignorant. It is an honest assessment of reality and a reminder that to be alive is to be terribly blessed with a miracle. More than anything, it is a mirror as it dealt with what many would find to be close to their hearts, that is the constant seeking for what lies beyond the horizon and what one can offer to this vast and fickle world.
For most people, myself included, these feelings and questions never really go away. They always insist on existing. The world is a billion years old and yet for some damn odd, inexplicable reason, here we are right now breathing, walking, listening to music, writing an album review, and doing whatever it is that we do. Sometimes it’s easy to be drowned in the craziness of it all and other times it’s easy to just be and take it all for granted. In the same manner, life can be this giant of a maze with ridiculous and challenging pathways and yet it can also be nothing more than a momentary illusion. With these things in mind, Helplessness Blues can serve as a mirror for its listeners to reflect on. A mirror that shows how everybody goes through the same thing every now and then. A mirror that shows how it makes sense to be afraid and be confused sometimes. And most importantly, how it makes sense for everything not to make sense.
“Wide-eyed walker, don’t betray me
I will wake one day, don’t delay me
Wide-eyed leaver, always going.”