In the lead-up to their recording sessions for “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold suggested that the band would try to “distance” itself from the debut with a “less poppy, less upbeat” sound. He said that he wanted to do vocal takes in one go. “Even if there are [mess] ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there not to be flawless vocals.” This from a guy who’s tended so assiduously to his harmonic craft that his girlfriend of five years had to break it off.
Well, the good news is that they’re working things out now that she’s heard the new record, which, after a long birthing stretch and a second studio session, scrapped some of those early concepts and instead maintained the vibrant naturalism of past work. For those that liked the Appalachian feel, the rural visuals of summer fruits and dawn upon the evergreens, and sounds of “The Cascades”—it’s all here in a lush way.
Which isn’t to say that nothing’s changed. The group’s still got a lived-in feel, and still swells vulnerably around a sense of hopeful mortality. But their debut had more of a baroque, chambered resonance where “Helplessness Blues” feels more open, freer, and moving. “Grown Ocean” gives a good sense of the free-flowing pace, and its accompanying video—a montage of intimate glances into their hippie-like day-to-day—forms a kind of thesis to the record’s “lust for life” vivacity. Even tracks like “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” that begin dense or sonically overcast eventually break apart into a bright release of warbles.
Underlying this is a similar question as before: “Why is life made only for an end?” Only this time, it’s a more internalized question, and has Pecknold (who, by contrast to the almost always fellowshipped vocals of old material, takes lead more often) singing things like “I woke up a dying man” or “I was old news to you then.” These lines might seem forthright by their standards, but if they’ve veered more in that direction, it’s for the better in a lot of ways. As I hinted before, the aphorisms and sensuous details are still here, and actually in more savory form when put beside these plain confessions. On “Someone You’d Admire” and “Blue Spotted Tail,” Pecknold’s voice recording is more up-front than ever, and show just how much they do to get that worn, homely, even hymnic grain on other tracks.
“Helplessness Blues” does use some of the same terms as their debut. After both albums, I’m pretty certain that “morning” is Pecknold’s favorite word, or idea even. “Sunlight” is another. But where these are the leftover scatterings of their evocative world of things, they’re motifs, and it’s interesting where they differ from past uses. For instance, “throat”: in last record’s “White Winter Hymnal,” a thing to bundle scarves around; here on “The Shrine/An Argument,” he sees the one he loves “in the ocean washing off my name from your throat.” In this way, all of their surroundings—their effect moves back and forth and back again.
Similarly, “Helplessness Blues” is a record of transitions—almost all of the songs move into second or third parts. While the tracks aren’t much longer, they do have a veering form. I think that the extra space does well for them, especially with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson. Henderson adds a Mediterranean-tinged violin on “Bedouin Dress,” a free jazz phrase on “The Shrine/An Argument,” and flute interludes that puff into “Lorelai.” For the most part, these don’t feel like props on the soundscape, and instead give a sense that there’s a lot of places they can go yet.
And with this record, there’s an urgency to go to them if life allows. When I hear tracks like “Helplessness Blues” or “Grown Ocean”—and the record as a whole—I think I’d follow them most anywhere, and I’m reminded to, in all of life, see the forest and the trees.