“I was a bit worried they’d suffer from second album syndrome,” said the kindly record store guy who sold me Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues last week. “But it’s actually really good.” It’s true: any risk that Robert Pecknold and company would fall into rock cliché with their sophomore release have been entirely squashed by its actuality. Helplessness Blues is if anything a brighter, more consistent, more accomplished album than its forebear. If Fleet Foxes continue to filter the Beach Boys through Laurel Canyon with an unapologetic nostalgia, the songs on this record do so with such muscle and so memorably that it no longer matters.
Helplessness Blues opens in familiar territory with ‘Montezuma’: Pecknold’s reedy vocals sing among ethereal reverb, backed by the Gregorian richness of his bandmates’ supporting vocals. The bright, plucked guitars, the soft, rounded bass, the swift changes in dynamics are all present and correct. ‘Bedouin Dress’ strips them back, sounding like the record Sam Beam may have made if hadn’t gone all psychedelic on Kiss Each Other Clean. Both it and the album’s similarly subdued third track, however, eschew the principle weakness of the band’s first album: the manner in which its smaller songs experienced trouble in peeking out from under the heavy shadows of its major movements. It’s not that Helplessness Blues has no ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, catchy and fat with evocative orchestration; it’s that all its songs aim in their own way for that track’s impact.
Thus the second record masters more moods than the first: where Fleet Foxes were most comfortable on their eponymous debut with grand, crashing statements, on this album they make even the finest detail work as substantial as the soaring anthems: ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ is a finger-picked folk ditty, as simple a song as the band have recorded, but it is as beautiful and haunting as ‘Helplessness Blues’, a twisting and turning of a song, full of pregnant open chords and piano riffs worthy of Arcade Fire. Indeed, you can hear Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, and Sufjan Stevens on this album, too – so successful is Helplessness Blues that it may well now also be a cliché to describe it or the band behind it as mere retro indulgence. They are a mature band capable of producing music of emotive beauty.
Go bother your own record store guy right now.