Three years ago Fleet Foxes’ ravishing debut album reawakened a dormant love of folk music among people who thought they'd never see a band with beards again. Here was music woven like golden tapestry and so dumbstruck by nature herself that the listener was left hankering for the great outdoors. Like a musical copy of National Geographic, Fleet Foxes really did make you want to clamber up towering oaks, strip naked, leap into lakes, and basically hug the grass.
That the band were from Seattle, home of Hendrix and Cobain, made their joyful, sensuous sound all the odder. Over half a million people bought the album and Fleet Foxes became a sharp antidote to a world of information overload with music as multi-layered as a forest floor and as textured as ancient bark but which also rang out with a high-borne simplicity.
For this majestic follow up band leader Robin Pecknold set himself a very high watermark. He said he wanted Helplessness Blues to have the cohesion of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. “To me it's the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in so I want our new album to have that feeling."
Pecknold was always a man entranced by early achievers like Morrison and Brian Wilson so don’t be too crestfallen that he hasn’t succeeded in scaling their prodigious heights here. However, like Fleet Foxes first record, Helplessness Blues is a thing of beauty. It is a more direct collection but it also maintains the hymnal quality of their celebrated debut; some songs sound like prayers and others sound like medieval madrigals which could explain why Pecknold is preparing for his own ritual burial on opener Montezuma.
Later, on the eight minute The Shrine/An Argument, he longs for a simple life of honest toil (“If I had an orchard, I’d work till I was sore”) while on Blue-spotted Tail he wonders “why life’s only made for it to end?” And this from a man who’s just turned 25.
The Plains/Bitter Dancer also sounds an uncharacteristically ominous note but Fleet Foxes' newfound sense of mortality is more than tempered by great rushes of joy like Sim Sala Bim which turns slowly on plucked mandolin and dulcimer but soon explodes into thrashing guitars. The Cascades is equally life-affirming, marrying the courtly folk of Pentangle with the summer’s end sadness of Simon and Garfunkel, the duo who are such a huge influence on Fleet Foxes.
Musically, Helplessness Blues is not quite as spellbinding as the meeting of west coast harmonies and dappled English pastoral folk as the debut. Songs are more straightforward, echoing Pecknold's drive for immediacy. A fiddle saws away at the heart of Bedouin Dress and the epic The Shrine/An Argument moves from lazy banjo to the sudden and loud interjection of stronking free jazz - a cacophony of woodwind and sax that ends up sounding like a flock of agitated geese.
The great, airy finale of Grown Ocean has those harmonies again, sung like they’re coming down the valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s transcendental and atmospheric stuff but the best thing here is Lorelai. It's a relationship break-up song which may concern the split Pecknold endured with his long term girlfriend when she couldn’t cope with his obsessive dedication to getting this album right.
Apparently, they’ve since worked it out. Which is the way you’ll feel about Helplessness Blues; it will make you fall in love with Fleet Foxes all over again.