Modernity is glorious sometimes. The idea that humanity can spread itself on its own accomplishments is a huge act of hubris and triumph that we will never be able to embrace fully or distance ourselves from—it is our nature to be plus-sized, to want more, to spread, to conquer and never to plan that far ahead, because the assumption is that our kids will be smarter than we are. We invent antibiotics, which cure diseases at least until they lose their efficacy. We invent financial systems, which make people rich until they make everybody poor. We invent a system of discourse that everyone can take part of, which also deprives us of our attention spans and critical thinking skills. We are a sustainably unsustainable species.
Robin Pecknold is discomforted by that. On the lynchpin title track to Fleet Foxes’ scintillating sophomore album, Helplessness Blues, the de facto frontman nearly bitterly remarks how he “was raised up believing” that uniqueness was to be valued—but modern life has deprived his life of meaning. He wants to work in an orchard. He wants to be a “functioning cog in some great machinery,” able to be a net benefit upon other people. In “Montezuma,” Pecknold dreams of selflessness, and in “Bedouin Dress,” he contemplates the idea of borrowing. It’s thoughtful, which keeps the lyrics from becoming too pointed and pedantic.
Also keeping the album’s momentum afloat is the new-found muscularity of Fleet Foxes. Whether it’s the steamrolling nature of the monolithic finale, “Grown Ocean,” the airtight harmonies of “Sim Sala Bim” or the short crescendo of “The Cascades,” the band has a facility with its folk idiom, and because of that, it transcends it. This isn’t Simon And Garfunkel-y or Hall And Oates-y—this is Fleet Foxes. Experiments like the free-trumpet section in the second half of “An Argument” flesh out the “guitars + harmonies + nature lyrics” formula upon which the self-titled debut successfully relied.
Helplessness Blues lacks immediately winsome tunes like “White Winter Hymnal,” but after going through this album repeatedly, it becomes clear that “White Winter Hymnal” lacks a dimension that fills this album. That’s mostly the credit of Pecknold, whose naturalistic lyrics mesh well with his soul-searching. If you’re looking for vaguely heartfelt lyrics about playing in the snow and find the line “someday I’ll be like the man on the screen” to be too on-the-nose, then Helplessness Blues will be a silly and pretentious album for you. But it doesn’t get tedious. In between the soul-searching, Fleet Foxes cranks out some pretty great singalong songs. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?