Though Fleet Foxes sounded wise beyond their years on 2008’s self-titled debut, Helplessness Blues finds age creeping up on singer Robin Pecknold. “So now I am older than my mother and father when they had their daughter,” he sings for the album’s opening line. “Now what does that say about me?” The nature of his question says a great deal about Pecknold’s band, which wrestled with its identity along the way to Blues. Wide-eyed self-searching is this record’s predominant mode, which Fleet Foxes do both lyrically and sonically, reveling in the process of discovery.
Musically, the band’s cornerstones remain in place: The harmony-heavy Americana of Crosby, Stills And Nash (“The Plains / Bitter Dancer”); the traditionalist folk of Pete Seeger (“Blue Spotted Tail”); and the easy psychedelia of Van Morrison (“Bedouin Dress”). But the Foxes also forge new ground, employing zithers, tamburas, Tibetan singing bowls, and even a Moog to imbue a minimal song like the elegiac lead-off track “Montezuma” with gusts of rustic orchestration, arriving at a place of rare beauty.
No moment better captures the album’s tone than when, amidst a sudden sweeping placidity, Pecknold declares on the title track, “If I had an orchard, I’d work ’til I’m sore.” The song’s final line acknowledges the futility of his everyman dream, not with a sigh, but a beatific wink: “And someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.” He gives lost love the same treatment via the expansive amphitheatre haze of “Someone You’d Admire,” as well as death on “Battery Kinzie,” over country harmonies and a posse-up lurch that would give Ennio Morricone a run for his money. It’s sophisticated, truth-seeking songs like these that make Helplessness Blues feel as timeless and immortal as that man on the screen.