Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fleet Foxes — Helplessness Blues

To be obnoxious and reference myself right off the bat, last summer, I wrote a sort of manifesto of why I think Neil Young is such a wonderful musician. In it, I addressed a specific quality that Neil, despite the varying levels of the quality of his output, has always possessed. To quote: "He made the mistake all along of presenting himself, unadulterated at all times."

This is a commodity. Very few musicians are able to put forth such soul-bearing music and still not even begin to come across as stuffy, pretentious or self-obsessed.

Enter Fleet Foxes.

There are very few bands that have come about in the past decade that I feel as strongly about. They are a shining light of sheer quality, based on established sounds, in a sea of people doing awful things in the name of "being cutting edge." I find their classicist, very much acoustic based music a breath of unbelievably fresh air. Their self-titled album three years ago was stunning for the simple fact that it was essentially nothing new —basically a Crosby Stills Nash and Young album with Slowdive-sized reverb— but the songs were so well-written, so perfectly executed and just so downright likable that it stuck out on the basis of how good it actually was.

Well, in the interim, they've gotten even more acoustic, more folky, less obsessed with harmonies (though there's still a good chunk of those, thank goodness) and —believe it or not— better.

As if my write-up on the release of the title track three months ago didn't glow enough for you to notice, here's the official word: I was excited as hell for this album.

After nearly unbearable anticipation —after all, I swore off any other pre-album previews, mp3 leaks, videos, et cetera— when I finally heard the album, it sounded just really solid to me. It was very much like hearing the title track those first few times: it sounded like Fleet Foxes doing more personal, more mature music.

The movements, shifts and mini-songs within songs are still present and the band sounds even better when doing that sort of thing, for the most part, without electric instruments. It ups the intimate, emotional aspect of the material greatly and really brings out the tunefulness of the vocal melodies, which are just all around better on this album — 'Blue Spotted Tail' is a perfect example, as it basically just a Robin solo song. He accompanies himself only on acoustic guitar and, I believe for the first time ever on an official studio track, has very minimal (perhaps even no) reverb on his vocal microphone for a wonderful little tune that's just as catchy as it is resonating.

It's a very puzzle-like experience at first. The sporadic walls of blasting, echoing harmonies meeting loudly strummed acoustic guitars only to melt into uber-pretty and equally echoey minimal electric guitar arpeggios. Dynamics are everywhere and even though the whole thing is over in just fifty minutes, it feels like a universe unto itself; practically every human emotion and mood articulately covered and spoken for in the duration.

The words are the key to unlocking this album. The tunes are great, too. But the words are why it's great.

So, let's examine a few things. . .

"So, now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter. Now, what does that say about me?" is the album's opening line.

"So, guess I got old. I was like trash on the sidewalk." (from 'Lorelai')

"I'd rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me." (from the title track)

And a whole thing about laying down on the beach, as the waves approach, seemingly to let the tide carry Robin Pecknold away, Kate Bush Ninth Wave style after a morning of hating the sunrise because his partner refuses to look him the eye when speaking right before driving away (from 'The Shrine/An Argument').

None too cheery, you say?

And I would agree.

Because, you see, this is destined to be considered one of the greatest breakup albums in rock history.

There are hints to it through the first two-thirds of the album, but beginning with 'Someone You'd Admire' when Robin Pecknold declares, "After all is said and done, I feel the same. All that I hoped would change within me stayed", it becomes glaringly obvious that he is broken man. His soul has not been crushed entirely, but it has been put on life support. The outcome, judging by the testimonial contained within this album, is still unclear. He sounds confused. And, only when one has digested the entire affair does the whole picture come completely into focus.

The highlight and album centerpiece —and the one that has everyone talking— is 'The Shrine/An Argument.' A multi-movement epic that bitterly details the immediate circumstances of a breakup —from scoffing at the sun ('Sunlight over me no matter what I do' screamed as if it's the worst thing ever) to a complete breakdown of free jazz saxophone skronk— it is one of the realest and most harrowing things I've heard in a long time. Call it overly artsy and mopey if you must, but no one with a beating heart and functioning ears could possibly call it unmoving.

'Blue Spotted Tail,' as the follow up song, plays as the final act of 'The Shrine/An Argument' as it finds Robin questioning not just his own existence, but the existence of everything: "Why in the night sky are the lights hung? Why is the Earth moving 'round the sun, floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one?"

And that's where I wrap it up. Sorry, folks. After that, I'm wiped.

I can relate so closely to everything he says in the last four songs that I can't even say why I'd call the last song ('Grown Ocean') arguably the best thing the group has yet done. It just is.

Overtly folky, dark and soul-wrenching, Fleet Foxes have indeed unleashed a beautiful, emotional —and emotionally taxing— masterpiece.

Pecknold has made the same mistake on this album that Neil Young has made over and over again throughout the years by being so personal and creating something that it is so honest —and so good— that it's nearly unlistenable.

Or at least it is for me.


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