Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues – review

Despite a few silly affectations, Fleet Foxes' second album is disarmingly beautiful, says Alexis Petridis

The area in which rock music meets poetry is seldom a happy place, so it's with a mild sense of panic, five minutes into Helplessness Blues, that the listener realises they're in the presence of a song loosely based on the work of WB Yeats. In fairness, you can see why his poetry might appeal to the Seattle sextet. It's as thick with references to folk tales as their music is with allusions to folk music; a bit mystical – befitting a band who write songs named after the magician's cry of Sim Sala Bim then swathe them in so much reverb it sounds as if they're performing in a church – and old enough to sound archaic: Fleet Foxes' songs, after all, inhabit a world where things keep happening 'neath other things and protagonists fail to heed the dictum of John Peel's late producer John Walters, that no one should ever eat or attend anything described using the word "fayre". Here, cymbals splash, a 12-string guitar plays a cyclical figure, a fiddle pulls at a melody simultaneously animated and mournful, and frontman Robin Pecknold sings plaintively about his lonesome life, before suggesting the remedy for his woes would be to head to Innisfree, by which he presumably means the deserted island in Lough Gill hymned in Yeats's 1888 poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, rather than, say, the secondary school of the same name near the Jayanagar shopping centre in Bangalore. The song stops dead, and the band's patented massed harmonies reiterate the point. "One day at Innisfree, one day that's mine," they sing, yearning for Yeats's pastoral utopia, where he announced he would build his own home, keep bees and "have some peace".

It certainly fits with Helplessness Blues's overarching theme, which seems to be weariness with life in a band whose debut album went platinum, occasioning endless touring and what sounds like a bloody struggle to follow it up. "Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?" asks opener Montezuma; "Oh, just tell me what I should do," pleads the title track. That said, before you approvingly quote it, it's perhaps worth noting that the popularity of The Lake Isle of Innisfree subsequently became something of a millstone around Yeats's neck, symbolic of a fame he didn't much enjoy. Indeed, at a state occasion to mark his birthday, the poet was so nonplussed at having his plea for some peace recited at him by a platoon of scouts that he is reputed to have fainted, which rather suggests the whole building a home on his deserted island with his bare hands thing might not have worked out – a man who faints at the sound of boy scouts reading poetry being perhaps less well suited for the rugged outdoor life than he might have hoped.

Or maybe Fleet Foxes do know that story, and recognise that they're fated to continue, despite the drawbacks of success. For all the stuff about jacking it all in to run an orchard ("you would wait tables," he brightly tells his partner, whose doubtless quite terse response to this suggestion alas goes unrecorded), Helplessness Blues is far from the audience-baiting gesture artists who feel trapped by their fame tend to make, unless you count the unexpected blurt of free sax that concludes The Shrine/An Argument. Instead, they play to and refine their strengths, most notably the vocals that recall the lush but spooked Beach Boys of Wind Chimes and Our Prayer. Fleet Foxes certainly have something of Smile-era Brian Wilson's grasp of dynamics, using their harmonies not merely to decorate songs, but to push them along. Montezuma starts out sparse and murky, before suddenly achieving a dizzying, wordless lift-off halfway though; the episodic The Plains/Bitter Dancer keeps surging from unaccompanied singing to a kind of whirlpool of voices. It's so gleefully done that it disarms any cynicism you might feel about their more ponderous moments – "Why is the Earth moving round the sun? Why is life made only for it to end?" asks Blue Spotted Tail, slappably – or indeed the distinct whiff of Ye Olde Medieval Banqueting Experience that hangs around some of their affectations.

Equally disarming is the quality of the songwriting, which, for all its complexity, never sounds as if it's been agonised over in the way it apparently has. At their best, the melodies just appear to be dripping from them, as on Lorelai, essentially Dylan's 4th Time Around lavishly upholstered, with all that song's bitterness replaced by heartstopping yearning. The result is almost laughably beautiful. Listening to it, Pecknold's projected flight to Innisfree seems more of an unworkable pipe dream than ever: if you're this good at doing what you do, it's probably best to stick at it.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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