When Sun Giant was released back in 2007 I remember a distinct feeling that ‘it’ had suddenly happened; folk for the 21st century had found its feet. I remember vividly the strange familiarity of the melodies, how the delicate instrumentation felt somehow more powerful than a dozen layered guitars and more than anything, the astonishingly beautiful harmonies that cleansed my ears with each passing chorus. Fleet Foxes had set the standard for which all other folk acts were to follow.
By the time 2008’s Fleet Foxes finally arrived, things had taken off for the band in a way that nobody could have ever expected, least the band themselves apparently. It is hard to believe there was a time before nu-folk, before Mumford & Sons had rushed to the top of the album charts with banjos and accordions; now it feels clichéd and a staple part of pop, back then it was unheard of. For my money, Mumford & Sons were, and remain, an excellent band but Fleet Foxes were always different, while Mumford’s driving and anthemic songs suddenly made sense on the big stage, the songs of Fleet Foxes always felt more at home in a more personal setting; spilling out of your headphones on a long walk, surfacing through the smoke of a student get-together, or kicking off a lazy Sunday morning.
It is hard to imagine exactly where Fleet Foxes will fit into 2011; The Vaccines have abruptly halted the nu-folk revolution and got everyone hooked on 90’s-inspired guitar rock and the fickle world of pop has I’m sure, moved on from bearded men with ukuleles and fiddles.
It is at this point important to realize then, that new album Helplessness Blues is without a doubt, the finest piece of work Fleet Foxes have released.
Helplessness Blues is a near faultless collection of dusty, honest and warm-hearted folk songs that already feel like standards, with the perfect mixture surprise and familiarity. The harmonies naturally, remain an integral aspect of this album, but they are used differently to previous releases; sparse and effortless they provide less a wash of colour and more an insight into the evocative lyrics. The lyrics themselves cover familiar ground; the sense of worth, growing older and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This might be a problem if singer Robin Pecknold didn’t possess such an emotive voice and delivery that only ever serves the lyrics flawlessly. His ability to merge literal perceptions of the world around him, with ambiguous and philosophical thoughts means that the words, “Like a huddled moon-lit exile on the shore. Warming his hands, a thousand years ago” sounds as poetic on ‘Someone You’d Admire’ as “Days are just drops in the river, to be washed away.” did on Sun Giant’s ‘Drops In The River’.
The title-track and centrepiece to the album, sums up all this great about this album; its pulsing rhythms and unwinding lyrics will feel like the return of an old friend for fans, and will surely hook anyone new to this unashamedly ponderous form of Americana; the second half, perfectly sheds light on the first, a rare accomplishment in song-writing.
‘The Shrine/An Argument’ is Fleet Foxes’ most ambitious song to date, incorporating a brash and experimental saxophone passage (presumably the ‘argument’ of the title), while ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ , which immediately follows it, is an introvert tale, brimming with the wisdom of an early Paul Simon record. ‘Bedouin Dress’ and ‘Battery Kinsie’ are the album’s most instant songs, but themselves quite different to the pop-led aspects of Fleet Foxes. Despite the broader ground covered, Helplessness Blues remains coherent and with repeated listens the variation becomes increasingly welcomed.
Helplessness Blues isn’t relevant to anything currently circulating in alternative music, and certainly doesn’t hold up in today’s pop climate, and that is what is so utterly brilliant about it. Fleet Foxes never claimed to reinvent folk music, and they haven’t done that with this album, but to those who claim that an album stuffed with originality is more interesting, gratifying or straight up more enjoyable than an album that focuses on ingenious song-writing and celebrates music for being what it is, need to sit down for 45 minutes and get lost in Helplessness Blues.
Released on 2nd May 2011 courtesy of Bella Union