In interviews since Fleet Foxes began work on Helplessness Blues, Robin Pecknold has made it clear he wanted to move away from its pop sensibilities and toward murkier folk territory. He name-dropped seminal stuff like Roy Harper’s Stormcock as inspiration. Those hoping for that sort of proggy departure though — with ten-minute suites and vocals wobbling with chorus effects — will be disappointed. Of course, they’ll also be missing the point.
Though perhaps not the wild departure Pecknold hinted at, Helplessness Blues is nearly perfect in its execution, and it’s endlessly beautiful. They’ve added depth to their sound without making it overly dark or sluggish, and Pecknold’s songwriting is gaining confidence, taking on more intricate melodies and vocal harmonies without losing any immediate impact. The space between the echoing guitar and his lush vocals that opens “Montezuma” acts as a kind of blank canvas for the record and it immediately gets colored with backing vocals, with more guitars, with Josh Tillman’s subtle but fundamental percussion.
From there, the record bursts with pastoral sounds. For someone wanting to move away from pop sensibilities, Pecknold has produced a surprisingly upbeat record, from the bounce and shuffle of “Bedouin Dress” to the jangling “Sim Sala Bim”, the record’s first half bristles with energy even as Pecknold’s worries seem to mount with each passing song. If folk music archetypes deal heavily in the romantic idea of wandering, this record captures emotions that seem beyond Pecknold’s years. These songs look back on a wandering life, a life off the grid in one way or another, and wonder what it was all about. He’s older than his parents were when they had his sister, he says early on, and the mortality in that realization coats the whole record. He has no practical solutions to allay his worry, unfortunately, so when he claims “If I had an orchard I’d work ’til I’m sore” in the excellent title track, you can hear the sweet fatigue of it in his voice, but that ‘if’ looms large. His solution, lovely as it is, is merely hypothetical.
There’s something unique in this approach, and personal, though the songs are still about personal journey and discovery, and in that way circle back around to established folk themes even as Pecknold calls them into question. Often the structures themselves also imply further wandering, as the songs will start with tight hooks and spread out into drifting echoes and expanding vocals. “Helplessness Blues” proves a perfect namesake for the album in that way, burning through towering choruses before unfolding into the bittersweet sway of its finale.
That movement is what distinguishes these songs from Fleet Foxes. There is a moment or two where you can hear the influences Pecknold is talking about — the jangling, 12-string breakdown in “Sim Sala Bim” surely channels Harper, while “The Cascades” has all the stately beauty of many Brit-folk troubadours — but this is more about his structures than anyone else’s sound. These songs morph and shift as they go, and you can hear Pecknold’s attention to detail in the horn riff on “Bedouin Dress” or the reverb-soaked guitar that shadows the harmonies on brilliant closer “Grown Ocean”. Pecknold and his band are meticulous here, and all the re-recording and remixing that went into this record — another point made in many interviews — comes across in these complex and shining tunes.
But here’s the thing: Maybe it’s all a little too controlled, a little too meticulous. Fleet Foxes should be admired for the detail of this album, and for creating layers that lead not to now-popular fuzzy obfuscation but rather to make the songs clearer, more resonant in both parts and whole. Still, as beautiful as the record is, and as dynamic as it can sound, it still feels very much in their wheelhouse, like they’re trying to pin these songs down, get every note right instead of letting the full, ragged feeling they represent come through.
The eight-minute “The Shrine/An Argument” would seem like the counter to such an argument, as it shifts tempo and mood several times, but the restless size of the song isn’t what makes it stand out. Nor is the shapeless horn freak-out in the end, which actually feels a little like self-conscious rebellion when surrounded by such carefully choices. The song stands out in the first minute, when Pecknold sings “Sunlight over me no matter what I do.” His always honeyed voice cracks into a shout, frustration leaking through for a moment, even as it turns on a dime back to pastoral beauty. It’s the most revealing moment on the record, something that comes across as more felt than thought out, which is what makes it the finest line Pecknold sings here.
That’s not to say, of course, that Helplessness Blues isn’t deep with feeling. This is a dynamic record that improves on the band’s already impressive accomplishments in every way. The care taken with this shows and often makes these songs blossom. It’s a record, though, that recalls Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest in some ways. Like that record, this is made by musicians who know, and have proven they know, how to make music that is undeniably beautiful. But while the album is intricate, it also feels held back by all the decisions that go into it, all the control exerted over every detail. Live, I imagine the songs on Helplessness Blues to be stunning, even revelatory (another way it would be like Veckatimest), while here they make for a great new record, but perhaps the meticulousness that makes it so beautiful also keeps it from being the future classic many were hoping for.
Perhaps that is too high a bar to hold this band to, but judging from his interviews and his love of a gnarled, difficult classic like Stormcock, that seems to be Pecknold’s aim. So if there’s one thing Helplessness Blues confirms, it’s that he and his band are innovative and dynamic, capable of making music that rises above the disposability of the digital age and lasts a good long while. Maybe they just need to trust that a little — then imagine what the next record will sound like.