REVIEW: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Artist: Fleet Foxes
Album: Helplessness Blues
Genre: Indie/Folk
Label: Sub Pop

Fleet Foxes have made a stellar name for themselves off their previous releases, lauded for their stunning harmonies and the lush atmospherics evident throughout their songs. Helplessness Blues will do much to add to this reputation, beaming with profound compositions full of tenderness and feeling, enriched by simple, decorative music and beautiful vocals.

“Montezuma,” the opening track, makes a shy approach. It instils a sense of longing and distance, attracting attention instantly with the exquisite vocal harmonies for which Fleet Foxes have become so renowned. There’s barely any music, which means the song feels natural, bare, and organic. It’s almost like a hymn, such is the gentle swell of the singing and the peaceful cloudiness of the music. “Bedouin Dress” takes the quiet spell cast by the opener and adds a little more magic. Hushed, understated music comes into the fray though the spotlight remains firmly on the singing. The song comes across almost like a feel good, countryside refrain, oozing warmth and pleasantries. In particular, the little rumbles of percussion which chirp in and out in the latter segment of the song charm and endear, adding a touch of momentum and quirks of intensity.

“Battery Kinzie” strikes the listener immediately with its lush, symphonic overtures. Spurred by the enchanting strain of the harmonies, it has a soft heart but robust instrumentation. There’s a steady rhythmic pounding, which renders the song a touch more immediate and exhilarating. This is expertly paced, designed to inspire and absorb, and the lyrics are wrought furtively, giving it a meditative undertone.

“The Plains/Bitter Dancer” makes a quiet and unassuming entrance. A solitary guitar chimes alongside a backbeat. There follows some eerie choral wailing, as the tempo gathers pace and what began as a dreamy spell becomes an all-encompassing surge of emotion. The instruments are delicate and airy, a fragile mixture of piano, lilting strings, and light percussion with the haunting vocals pulling all together beautifully. The song is an enigma with frequent changes in tone – evidenced again by the above tenderness morphing into a potent declaration of intent in the latter segment.

“Helplessness Blues” makes a very fitting reference to snowflakes. The overall impression one derives from the record is of something similar – unique, freefalling, yet enchanting. This song has a distinct folk sound to it, driven by an insistent guitar spurring the lyrical journey. It stands out because of this; it’s less nuanced, but its faster pace and diversity of sound renders it that little more engaging. Instead of compelling contemplation, this makes you listen, properly listen, to everything that’s going on. “Someone You’d Admire” has all the ingredients for a soul-searching, reflective scene in a film. It’s simple, relatively basic, with just an acoustic guitar and singing, but (as with elsewhere) the gracefulness of the vocals brings such depth to the song it feels a lot more complex.

“The Shrine/An Argument” is a lengthy song, leading to much expectation in terms of diversity and structure. The opening segment is much like “Someone You’d Admire,” the previous track, capturing the same refined sound. The midsection incorporates reverberating percussion and dashes of thrilling guitar to make something more powerful and affecting. The vocals continue to echo magically though unfortunately the song in its final stage hits something of a dud note with some weird, unhinged squeaking strings. However, we can choose to casually overlook that.

“Blue Spotted Tail” then is a tranquil comedown after the lengthy excesses that have gone before, and it’s followed by the spunky, animated concluding notes of “Grown Ocean.” The latter is a tremendous song. It sets out to end things on a stirring, effervescent note and achieves this admirably. It builds momentum throughout with the ubiquitous vocal stylings gradually joined by more and more instruments, all of which add a touch of colour and flair to proceedings. An exceptional ending to a thoroughly beautiful record.

Helplessness Blues is something of an innocuous name for an album so imbued with sophistication and sentiment. It almost calls for something a touch more romanticized, to match the plaintive warbling that makes each song unique and lends the band that sense of something special and distinctive. This is a gentle and immensely rewarding listen that ought to be treasured and celebrated by fans and the media alike, and a credit to a talented band blazing a fine trail.

Score: 9/10
Review written by: Grace Duffy

James Shotwell
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3 Responses to “REVIEW: Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues”

  1. Harry says:

    great album!!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    This review is as eloquent and elegant as the album itself.