With its extraordinary debut in 2008, Seattle's Fleet Foxes helped propel the modern resurgence in folk music, such as Mumford and Sons and The Head and the Heart.
The four-part harmonies hearkened back to The Beach Boys and The Zombies, while the ornate musicianship and chord progressions used Fairport Convention and Pentangle as touchstones. It was a welcome sound that listeners hadn't heard in years. But while Mumford and Sons and The Head and the Heart seem to exploit the trend with cheesy heart-on-sleeve lyricism and recycled, easily digestible melodies, Fleet Foxes proves its legitimacy and songwriting prowess with Helplessness Blues, a deeply personal and complex record that shoves worries of the sophomore slump down pessimists' throats.
Frontman Robin Pecknold has revealed the difficulties associated with the making of Helplessness Blues, including the ending of his relationship of three years, alienation and physical illness. But rather than cave to the pressure and stress, Pecknold clearly channels his frustrations and existential crises into these 12 songs. "How could I dream of such a selfless and true love/could I wash my hand of/ just looking out for me," he sings on opener "Montezuma." Its self-titled debut was rich with vague, bucolic imagery, but here we get insight into the songwriter's character.
But as much as Pecknold reflects about regret and doubt, he avoids self-loathing and lamentation. Contrary to what the title of the record connotes, there is also a fair amount of hopefulness in his words and melodies. This isn't simply a purging of feelings and anxieties without resolution. Album closer "Grown Ocean" especially takes in all of the uncertainty and worry of the songs before it; with Pecknold exclaiming "I know someday the smoke will all burn off/All these voices I'll someday have turned off."
The use of 12-string guitars, dulcimers, strings and even a sax freak-out has also moved the band into more multifaceted, diverse song structures, challenging listeners while still surpassing the majesty and artistry of its debut. Helplessness Blues is a gorgeous, powerful statement and quite honestly, a landmark in American music.