Review: Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

"If to borrow is to take and not return - I have borrowed all my lonesome life"
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Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Most of the world (meaning me and everyone else) has been anxiously waiting for the much anticipated new album from Seattle's Fleet Foxes.  Dare to disagree?  Just pick up this month's copy of Spin with Robin Pecknold and the phrase "the years most beautiful album" on the cover.  

The followup to the bands 2008 self-titled debut, Helplessness Blues brings back the ethereal three part harmonies that Foxe's fans fell fantastically infatuated with in the first place.  The record also shares the same dream-like sounds played by an eclectic assortment of acoustic instruments (is that a hammered dulcimer and a vibraslap I hear?).  Lest we forget the trance inducing percussion.

What's different this time around is the songwriting. Something is darker, and at times heartbreaking.  Gone are the traditional folk themes of mountains and strawberries in the summer time.  Those have been replaced by lyrics rooted in insecurity, confusion, death, and even rotting flesh. This is not your typical folk band folks. 

Perhaps the increasingly somber lyrics are the result of a band that produced one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 1998 (Fleet Foxes was rated album of the year by Billboard's Critics Choice and sold over 210,000 copies in North America) and was now faced with the often daunting task of creating a follow up as good - or preferably better.  I've read several interviews with Pecknold where he's talked openly about the process of creating Helplessness Blues - a process that for all practical purposes consumed him.  Sacrificing sleep, a relationship, a social life, and countless other things - Pecknold refused to create anything less than a record he saw as acceptable to his own perfection demanding standards.  And those self imposed pressures show in the title track's lyrics:

I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking
I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

My favorite song from Helplessness Blues, "Lorelai," starts with a dainty little melody - which is quickly juxtaposed with another set of dark lyrics:

So guess I got old
I was like trash on the sidewalk
I guess I knew why
Often it's hard to just sweet talk 
I was old news to you then
Old news, old news to you then 

The end result?  A beautiful connection of lyrics that bring out feelings of self-doubt we can all agree with, and music that is so fascinating it almost makes us forget about any element of reality living within its words.