To call the Fleet Foxes a “renaissance band” would not be far off the mark. The Foxes’ stately blend of folk jammery (complete with jaw-dropping, four-part harmonies) certainly reads as a throwback to the golden days of late-’60s folk-pop. But the band is incalculably more than the sum of its nostalgia-drenched influences. Laden with oodles of requisite reverb and prickling with Gen-Y ennui, the band’s sound is unquestionably a product of the 21st century. While the Foxes’ rustic guitar balladry may radiate with a sunny naiveté, an uncanny sense of ghostly introspection seeps through the cracks.
With the aptly titled Helplessness Blues, the band further develops the foreboding undertones that bubbled beneath the surface of its largely sanguine debut (Fleet Foxes). The tracks are grander and more ornate, circling melancholically around their emotional and melodic centers rather than shooting straight to the point. Over the course of eight minutes, “The Shrine/An Argument” shifts from acoustic reverie to surging crash cymbal-ridden anthem to plaintive pseudo-acapella to abrasive free-jazz noise outro that will likely scare the crap out of you the first time you hear it.
While the rest of the record is decidedly less epic (save for action-packed five-minute suite “The Plains/Bitter Dancer”), the freewheeling aesthetic is prominent throughout. “Sim Sala Bim” fronts as a sparse rainy-day folk number before abruptly piling on a deluge of Herculean strings, deciding two minutes in to drop the vocals entirely and storm out with a brisk shuffle of unplugged guitar calisthenics. Centerpiece “Helplessness Blues” bucks verse-chorus-verse in a less jittery fashion, literally picking up electricity halfway through as it melts away into an aching three-guitar whorl.
As a result, the band’s second studio album feels inevitably heavier than its predecessor. Where Fleet Foxes succeeded as an airtight collection of retro-chic pop powerhouses, Blues succeeds as a breathtaking series of sonic adventures. Vocal-less “The Cascades,” with its progressively plucked arpeggios and cavernous tambourine rattles, feels more akin to the score of a pirate film than to anything off the band’s debut. Even “Battery Kinzie,” the record’s most straightforward pop offering, feels compelled to open with the lyrics, “I woke up one morning / all my fingers rotten / I woke up a dying man without a chance.”
While Blues may lack the relatively sunny-side-up pulse of Foxes, its baroque melodies retain the same heart-stopping gorgeousness. “Bedouin Dress” and “Lorelai” are perfect examples of how the Foxes have expanded upon their signature sound without remotely forsaking it. The former folds a Celtic fiddle riff seamlessly into its buoyant hop while the latter summons jazzy vibraphone tinkles to flesh out its aquatically rippling texture. Both songs exemplify the band’s ability to channel its experimental impulses toward atmospheric enhancement rather than spacey indulgence.
Just for good measure, the group throws in a handful of relatively understated songs. Opener “Montezuma” sets the record’s tone perfectly with its gently submerged beauty, showcasing the Foxes’ eerie ability to craft a sound that is fuller than that of virtually any other indie band out there with little more than a couple of guitars and melt-in-your-mouth vocal harmonies. And “Someone You’d Admire” and “Blue Spotted Tail” both spin pure ear candy from the no-frills troubadour template, the latter even ditching the reverb completely for a refreshing moment of vulnerability.
Helplessness Blues undeniably takes a few listens to settle in, but when it does, the experience is borderline religious. While it certainly isn’t going to be the feel-good record of 2011, it’s the closest thing to a masterpiece we’ve seen all year.