Three years is a long time.
In today’s world of blink-and-you’ll-miss- it attention spans, it can be career suicide for a band not to produce in three years. But that’s how long it took Fleet Foxes to make Helplessness Blues.
Across the board, anticipation for this release was high. The band’s first three efforts, the EPs Fleet Foxes and Sun Giant, released in 2006 and 2008, along with their self-titled full length, also released in 2008, established the band as strong—sometimes even brilliant—songsmiths. And that’s not even touching on the harmonies they create. Oh, those harmonies. There still isn’t anyone who is quite achieving what the band is vocally. If there is one thing that you’ll ALWAYS be able to say about Fleet Foxes, it’s ,“Goddamn those boys can sing!” But you know that. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this. So I’ll just get to the task at hand. Was it worth the wait?
While Helplessness Blues does have some incredibly bright moments, like the tracks Montezuma and Bedouin Dress, which tellingly come at the beginning of the album, those highs simply aren’t sustained over the course of the album’s 45:33 running time. As such, by the time you get to the unexpected sax solo in The Shrine/An Argument near the end, it does less to intrigue you then it does to simply wake you up. Which is the whole problem I have with the record— I’ve heard it before and I’ve heard it done better.
Instead of the nuance and restraint exhibited by the band on their previous releases, everything, at least at the front end of Blues, simply beats you over the head with its giant f@#@ing harmony-ness. It becomes boring, which is the last thing I ever thought I’d say about a Fleet Foxes album. While what familiarity breeds in this case isn’t anything as strong as contempt, it most certainly isn’t something to feel good about.
I know, I know. It sounds like I’m being harsh. I probably am. And sure, that might be because this album took THREE F@!#ING YEARS to make. To put that in perspective, fellow Sub Pop label mates, Blitzen Trapper (a band we also love here), are about to release their FOURTH album in that same amount of time. It’s comparing apples to slightly different apples, but in a very real way, Blitzen Trapper has avoided the hard task of beating their fans’ expectations by simply not making them wait. It’s a lesson that I think lead singer Robin Pecknold and his seriously-talented band mates might want take note of.
So call it the sophomore slump, or call it a missed opportunity. While Helplessness Blues doesn’t quite hit the mark, it diminishes nothing for them in the long run. Fleet Foxes are still a ridiculously talented band who make some gorgeous music. Especially in front of people. So if it doesn’t exactly hit on record, rest assured, it will hit on the stage.
And yes, I know that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE is lauding this album as the second coming of whatever. I get that, and to each their own. Hell, even as I’m writing this review and digging through the tracks, I’m finding more and more to like. Who know, maybe in a few months there will be a full retraction, and my love for this album will know no bounds. But for now I’ll take a pass and instead look forward to the next effort by this band, hoping that next time they hit the mark that they’ve managed to hit flawlessly before. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another three years for that.