While Fleet Foxes have developed a reputation for musical earnestness, their songs have always had some of the shape-shifting cunning associated with their animal namesake. Their 2008 self-titled debut cloaked itself in disparate strains of Americana — from CSNY to folk to The Beach Boys — held together by threads of vocal harmonies so pretty, they seemed more like decorative embroidery than functional seams. The result was music as comfortingly familiar as a quilt, albeit a store-bought one with the smell of the factory still on it. It never quite felt authentic, but I still marveled at the songs’ ability to evoke the past through their modern plastic wrappings. Fleet Foxes’ trickery was in conjuring up nostalgia for nothing in particular, and only in that album’s first 20 seconds — the off-key old timey vocals that introduce “Sun It Rises” — was its ahistoric relationship with white American music made obvious. Paradoxically, that copy of twangy Appalachia felt like Fleet Foxes’ most idiosyncratic moment, connecting, for once, to a specific time and place.
On the band’s new album, Helplessness Blues, frontman Robin Pecknold opens by drawing a different kind of line to the past: “So now I am older/ than my mother and father/ when they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?” It’s a vague question, but the nostalgia that the band’s characteristic floating harmonies carry is now, more than ever, explicitly anchored in something concrete: Pecknold’s own life. Producer Phil Ek drenches most of the album’s vocals in reverb, giving Pecknold a nasal tone; with the phrasing of the song’s refrain a few lines later, he sounds almost like a whining child: “Oh man what I used to be/ Oh man oh my oh me.” The music that surrounds those lines, though, sounds almost like it has no youth left.
It’s an uneasy contrast, but an appropriate introduction for an album that feels both sedentary and restless. Mostly gone is any foot-stomping raucousness, including the drum kit and electric guitar. With the acoustic turn, when the whole band’s playing, Helplessness Blues recalls Vetiver’s proper, bouncing folk rock. But through great swaths of the album, Pecknold sings alone, accompanied only by ever-present reverb and plucked acoustic guitar that’s nearly buried in the mix. I’ve seen Pecknold perform some of these same songs solo and they sounded warmly intimate. But here, Ek’s production emphasizes the music’s empty spaces, the vast physical distance between Pecknold and his accompaniment. Or his audience.
But while Helplessness Blues is sparser and more restrained than its predecessor, it’s also spotted by unexpected flourishes that are almost experimental by the band’s traditionalist standard. The piston-like vocals (reminiscent of Björk) that introduce “The Plains/Bitter Dancer” sound unlike anything the band’s done, but at the two-minute mark, they give way to an impersonation of an unreleased Simon & Garfunkel track (the duo’s two-part harmonizing hovers over Helplessness Blues like a bridge over troubled water). The two sections aren’t easily reconciled. Maybe it’s just the sound of Pecknold struggling to insert his own unique experience into the familiarity of history; his failure to do so successfully adds an awkward sadness to much of the album. At the same time, when the seams show as clearly as they do on this track, it’s some of the most challenging and interesting music the band has recorded.
Which brings us to the album’s other song with a slash in the title, “The Shrine/An Argument.” Its initial minor key guitar pluck and Pecknold vocals combo is the album’s most haunting moment, so it’s a surprise when Pecknold atypically decides to rock the boat: three-fourths of a minute in, he raises his voice until he’s yelling. It’s Helplessness Blues’ only moment of rawness. Immediately after, the band’s rigid harmonizing returns; this time, though, its retro prettiness sounds fucking sinister, even though the band’s only singing about “apples in the summer.” In part, it’s the contrast with the unhinged moment before it, but there’s something distinctly creepy in the harmonizing itself. It’s a breakthrough moment: instead of simply capturing the pleasantness of our nostalgia for old music, the band, like many of its contemporaries, has finally learned how to manipulate it. And that’s all by the two-minute mark; bells, an atonal horn solo, and what sounds like a plucked Erhu all appear, as the band continues to politely fuck shit up.
“The Shrine/An Argument” gnaws open the band’s pigeonhole so much that for the following track, “Blue Spotted Tail,” they actually turn the reverb off. It’s a forgettable track, but it’s nice to hear Pecknold sound like he’s close. After stepping out of Americana’s shadows on the previous song and showing us what they’re capable of on their own, the band felt they might as well reveal a little bit more. They tuck it away and zip it up for the album’s closer, though, the straight-laced “Grown Ocean.” After seeing so much exposed, it’s an unsatisfying ending. Let’s hope on their next effort they rip the quilt to shreds.