Album review: "Helplessness Blues"
It’s been a few years since we’ve heard from Fleet Foxes, but Robin Pecknold’s lyrics make it seem like it’s been decades. At just 25 years old, the golden-voiced frontman of 2008’s breakout folk band is in full reflection mode on the band’s much-anticipated follow-up. “So now I am older than my mother and father / When they had their daughter” are the first words out of his mouth on “Montezuma,” the title itself a reference to a fallen empire. “Oh man, what I used to be,” Pecknold laments during the chorus over sweet, reverb-flecked guitar, as angelic backing vocals descend upon him.
It’s a shift from the doe-eyed innocence of “Ragged Wood,” from the band’s debut, making for a darker shade of Fleet Foxes. But beams of light in the form of Pecknold’s voice and his bandmates’ stirring harmonies still serve as the overwhelming foundation of the band’s sound. No matter the musical accompaniment — or even the occasional lack of one — the vocals remain so captivating that it’ll take more than some slightly down lyrics to stop it from being an uplifting album.
“Helplessness Blues” is all forms of ’70s AM gold but never gets so breezy as to become background music. The insistent bounce of “Battery Kinzie” is one of the disc’s liveliest moments and seems to contradict Pecknold singing, “I woke up a dying man without a chance,” but his warm voice makes it sound like a pleasant morning. Mostly, the arrangements are elegantly adorned, if not terribly inventive, but there’s no point distracting from the main event. And while the eight-minute chamber-folk experiment “The Shrine/An Argument” confirms that Fleet Foxes have yet to write their “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” they still have songs that will similarly stand the test of time.
— David Malitz, May 3, 2011