Singing in that unequivocal lonesome tenor of his on the title track to Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold tells of his childhood. "Raised up believing I was somehow unique like a snowflake," he sings; but he soon follows with the converse wish, to be "a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me."
Pecknold's desire to transcend himself has a touch of zeitgeist to it. Similar notions echoed through President Obama's recent speech on community and the social compact, and pulsed beneath the surface of Jonathan Franzen's lauded Freedom. Of what use is personal freedom if there's no greater society beyond the self? Freedom involves others.
So later in that same song, when Pecknold exclaims, "I'm tongue-tied and I can't keep it to myself," his fans — and perhaps his bandmates and his label — are no doubt grateful. From the opening reverberations of "Montezuma" to the furious strumming of "Sim Sala Bim" through the geese-honk rupturing of epic centerpiece "The Shrine / An Argument," Helplessness Blues stuns with its refined yet unfettered beauty. It oozes out of every nook and corner, it rises in every chord change, it radiates in every convergence of the Fleet Foxes' honeyed voices, and it washes over listeners in waves.
A few moments, like the gorgeous, wordless voices that open "The Plains / Bitter Dancer" or the lilting waltz of "Lorelai," will no doubt make an older generation recall the halcyon harmonies of Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby Stills & Nash, but the band stakes ground firmly in the present. Pastoral as the music sounds, turmoil and doubt courses just under the surface. Rather than the earthy impressionism of its predecessor, Pecknold's words on Helplessness Blues document a creative struggle. He ponders his role as an artist, pines for a "selfless and true love," and seeks throughout to escape the state of "just looking out for me." Meditating on loss and temporality, that even these successes too will pass, Pecknold finds comfort in small moments instead. On the hushed ballad "Blue Spotted Tail," he asks that eternal question: "Why is life made only for to end?" He then hears a voice on the radio and "couldn't help but smile," for a brief moment outside of himself.