Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
by Scott Creney
Fleet Foxes are back with another album. The music on Helplessness Blues is, in a word, beautiful. I was told not to use that word in writing school—too banal, too trite, too devoid of any real meaning. Having listened to the album, let’s just say that I stand by my choice of words.
Helplessness Blues is 50 minutes of laments for one’s self in the face of shifting uncertainty, framed in endless soothing harmonies, an opiate of sighs. It’s ear candy for the sentimental, the place where Nick Drake intersects with The Hollies.
The most commonly heard word on the album is “I”, and “me” is a close runner-up. So at some point, your ability to be moved by all this (very real, very existing) prettiness depends on your ability/willingness to identify with Robin Pecknold, the leader of this skulk of Foxes.
For Robin, nature represents an escape from the complicated life, a place where he can imagine himself with endless time and endless peace. Me, I’m not a big fan of nature. To me, nature is dangerous. It is something to be feared. Nature takes the form of tsunamis, hurricanes, diseases, and poisonous insects. I hate camping. I hate sleeping outdoors. It reminds me of being homeless.
The album opens with a question.
So now I am older
Than my mother and father
When they had their daughter
Now what does that say about me?
I guess it says that Robin is either impotent, or has issues with his virility. Or it could say (and this is less likely, but more interesting) that his penis has left a trail of miscarriages and forced abortions in its ejaculating wake. Or it could just say (and this is both more likely, and less interesting) that he hasn’t managed to get anyone pregnant yet — due to either a lack of trying, or a lack of proper education. Anyway, Helplessness Blues abounds in this kind of banality masquerading as depth. There’s a fine line between a simple homespun truth, and a tired cliché. Fleet Foxes spend nearly an hour walking this line, and all too often they fall on the side of the latter.
This verse from the title track is the stupidest thing I’ve heard in forever.
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store
First off, how come the girl (I’m going to go ahead and assume that the ‘I’ in FF songs is exclusively heterosexual) has to wait tables while the guy works in the fields? What a sexist. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t have any kids yet. Either way, this is the worst kind of romanticism. The allure of life in the country. Ah, so simple and pure. One of these days I’m just gonna quit me this rock’n’roll life and be a simple farmer. That would plum just about solve everything.
Just what we needed, a rural Bruce Springsteen.
How much do you want to bet Robin doesn’t see her working at the Waffle House? Or at Applebee’s? It’s insulting to the people who actually do wait tables and work until they’re sore. It betrays an overall lack of empathy for your fellow man. It’s the difference between anthropology and tourism, between a life immersed in others versus observing them through a glass and making assumptions.
I don’t think he’s going to be trading in the recording studio for a plow anytime soon, but if Robin Pecknold really wants to change places with the ‘simple folk’ of America, I’m sure we can find an infinity of volunteers.
But I’m probably focusing too much on the words, right? Here’s what it sounds like.
Again, this music is very very pretty.
In recent days, accusations have been levelled against Collapse Board that its writers don’t actually listen to the music they review. Here’s some songs I listened to.
‘Bedouin Dress’, in its rhythm and instrumentation, sounds a bit like ‘The Red Shoes’ by Kate Bush. Except Kate’s song re-tells a story (by Hans Christian Andersen) about a dancer who puts on a pair of shoes that make her into a great dancer, except she is unable to take them off. The song ends with the shoes “whipping her like a helicopter”. They are going to make her dance, “till her legs fall off”.
Robin’s song tells us that he regrets how he borrowed so much as a youth. Yep. It also mentions Innisfree over and over again, the desire to return there. I can only assume he’s talking about Innisfree Village, a “life-sharing village for adults with intellectual disabilities”. Like Fleet Foxes, the residents of Innisfree Village also like to make music. Here’s one of their songs. I find it more, honest, moving, and real than anything on Helplessness Blues.
Of course, he could also be referring to the Yeats poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I leave it to you to decide. (By the way, I know this next clip doesn’t sound a whole lot like ‘The Red Shoes’. I was talking about the recorded version. Save your comments.)
The wordless harmonies of the first half of ‘The Plains/Bitter Dancer’ are more profound, more moving, than anything else on the album. I’m starting to think it may just be the words that keep tripping me up.
‘Lorelai’ — which, it goes without saying, is NOT a Cocteau Twins’ cover — recycles the melody of Dylan’s ‘4th Time Around’, which itself recycled the melody of ‘Norwegian Wood’.
Then 40 seconds into the 10th song, ‘The Shrine/An Argument’, things start to get interesting. Robin unleashes a full-throated scream, finally allows a little sour to commingle with the sweet. It’s as raw as this album is going to get. Six minutes later the song erupts/dissolves into Albert Ayler-type saxophone shrieks amid a swooning Van Dyke Parks-type string arrangement. Everything gets jazzy, psychedelic, and weightless. It lasts for three minutes, and it is the most riveting moment of the entire album. I loved it. So naturally when it came on at work this morning a customer immediately ran up and told me it sounded horrible.
Whatever. This album is going to sell shitloads, and that customer’s probably going to have a copy within the month. I don’t blame anyone for buying it — or downloading it (Robin is on record as saying, “I’ve downloaded hundreds and hundreds of records — why would I care if somebody downloads ours? That’s such a petty thing to care about,” so you have his permission). Helplessness Blues is the aural equivalent of a warm caring hug. And god knows there’s enough people out there who could use one (and they’re probably not going to get it from me). This album is made for long drives, day or night, to the beach or to Ikea, it doesn’t make much difference. Unfortunately, it probably won’t improve your gas mileage either — now that would be a contribution to society.
And don’t get me wrong. Sometimes romanticism is compelling; it can infuse the tedious and mundane with a beauty we never previously imagined. But sometimes romanticism just comes across as patronising and naïve. And it’s time Robin Pecknold learned the difference; it’s time he grew up.
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