Despite the bearded, reclusive, and even curmudgeonly persona that their 2008 self-titled debut conveyed with its archaic, charmingly outdated Appalachian quirks and grandfatherly lyricism, Fleet Foxes are quite the savvy bunch of Seattleites. Case in point: their second album, Helplessness Blues, where the indie-folk sextet seeks not to reinvent the wheel, but to enrich the rustic, baroque-flavored sincerity of their young oeuvre. It’s a classic case of not fixing what isn’t broken, and Fleet Foxes have wisely recognized that their uniquely antiquated, harmony-driven sound can withstand a few tweaks, but no massive reinvention. Aside from the expected tinkering, Helplessness Blues continues the intricately layered, aw-shucks appeal of their freshman masterpiece.
Much of Helplessness Blues‘s success can be attributed to the fact that the new wrinkles enhance rather than distract from the band’s core sound. As fans of Fleet Foxes can attest, much of the group’s appeal resides in its juxtaposition of lyrical allure and acoustic-driven familiarity, offering a friendly, folksy atmosphere while conjuring images of an esoteric yesteryear. This balance between word and melody was all but perfected on their debut, hence complicating any musical evolution.
Fleet Foxes’ answer to the “Where do we go from here?” question is to follow the episodic structure established by songs like “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Ragged Wood,” both from Fleet Foxes. Though there’s nothing on Helplessness Blues as immediately accessible as “White Winter Hymnal,” nearly every track on the album holds its own beautifully revealed subtlety. Opener “Montezuma” serves as a quick, much-welcomed reunion with the group’s pristine harmonies and sing-song reflections; golden-voiced leadman Robin Pecknold starts with “So now I am older/Than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me?,” allowing the track to build and then soften as he revisits his pensive musings.
Helplessness Blues succeeds because Fleet Foxes find a way to consistently balance the added level of nuance with their natural inclinations toward epic songcraft. The ruminative title track, for example, begins unassuming enough and then suddenly unfolds, cascading around Pecknold’s signature line: “If I had an orchard/I’d work ‘til I’m sore.” From the sweet “Lorelai” and the mystical “Sim Sala Bim” to the trilling “Grown Ocean,” Fleet Foxes routinely and simultaneously deliver both the quaint and the grandiose. While Helplessness Blues rarely eclipses the pastoral greatness of the band’s first record, it comes as close as possible without forcing the band to completely reinvent itself.