Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Help!: A Review of Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes

The first line on Helplessness Blues, the fantastic new album by Fleet Foxes, is “so now I am older, than my mother and father, when they had their daughter, so what does that say about me?” It is the best lyric of the past fifteen years and perhaps the most apropos to this current generation of youth that is seeing the population rate slowly move to an inverse pyramid—that is to say we are doing things later than before, including having kids. We can learn things better and quicker than our parents or our grandparents; we can go to the far ends of the Earth with easier access, though with perhaps more fear, and embark on more adventures than our mothers and fathers ever imagined. However, we seem to lack the want or desire to manifest love or to start families. We have the urge and the vague longing for deep love, but not the means to make it real. We contain the notion of family, but not the understanding of what it takes to be a parent. Our lives are multifaceted and without limits, but we can’t seem to remember what it is that people actually do. And maybe that’s what Helplessness Blues are.

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When I was in San Francisco on vacation last month, I did the Cliff Walk starting at Sunset Park and heading up to Baker Beach. It was a sunny day and the wind blew as it does in San Francisco—in rising sporadic gusts that are at first warm and then briskly cold. I walked with a girl who I once loved. We climbed stairs made from roots and walked underneath shade. There were spots of sunlight and the flowers were fragrant. I would’ve sweat if I wasn’t so comfortable walking in my sneakers at a good pace. We talked about and around things like people who once loved each other do, recognizing the shape of the other, remembering an attachment, but not noticing the finer details, the fact that those two people walking side by side hadn’t existed five years earlier.

At one point, as we walked up and down hills, we talked about an old friend of hers who had changed.

“She yelled at me for even listening to pop music,” my old love said.

“That’s crazy. Everyone has to listen to pop music even just in passing. It’s just what you do.”

“Exactly,” she said, wiping her brow. “And especially when we used to work in the café and make fun of them together.”

I picked up a walking stick and followed behind her as she walked down the path. She continued to talk about her friend.

“She’ll like only listen to the most indie music, the most obscure. And only drink microbrews and eat only completely organic things. All of that is fine, don’t get me wrong, I love good  beer as much as anyone else and eating healthy too. But it’s like you can take the fun out of things if you go too far. You know?”

A view of the Pacific suddenly appeared. You could see the green rounded peaks of Marin and the wind ripping across the water and waves.

“It’s something I’ve thought about,” I said. “Life can be pretty simple.”

She laughed. “You’re one to talk.”

I poked the stick in the dirt as we rose up another hill.

“I know I have a history of reading into things, but I mean that a pop song can just be a pop song. Sure there are plenty of good beers out there, but you can just drink a beer and that can be it. You can just walk somewhere or talk to someone. Life is obviously messy, but there are simple things in it. We can want something simple. We can just get dinner.”

“Right. No, I totally get it.”

We continued walking and eventually the path led to an extraordinarily affluent neighborhood that stood on the cliffs. Each home was more intricate and elaborate than the next, with gates at each driveway and little gatehouses. Vines grew over and along wooden and metal gates, homes and doors were painted solid reds and blues of varying shades. Some homes were white. We walked down to a little beach and, with strong wind blowing in our faces, we ate sandwiches on rocks looking at the Pacific.

“This is what you wanted, right?” she asked.


We ate quietly and drank water, watching a Spanish family climb into the small waves to get to a larger rock. That was the best time we had.

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Fleet Foxes’ first album, Ragged Wood, could have almost been the soundtrack to the summer of 2008. Their EP Sun Giant had caused plenty of buzz and had caught me off guard when a friend sent it to me, causing me to have one of those “Where did these guys come from?” moments that you have from time to time with a new band. So, when Ragged Wood came out in June of 2008, I and most of my friends had been looking forward to it and were pleased to find out how terrific it was. It was my first summer in Brooklyn and it turned out to be one of the best of my life. Most of us had been out of college for a year and had gotten through the initial blast of post-college depression without much harm. The weather was beautiful and there was plenty of music to see in McCarren Park. I’d run at the track after work as the sun set and then meet friends afterwards at a bar somewhere. We’d spend time at my apartment or on my roof and listen to Ragged Wood. Or, I’d play the album in my down time while I cleaned the apartment without a shirt on, looking forward to drinking a beer outside during the day and getting a tan. The music was pastoral and delicate and seemed to immediately fit right into the canon of Americana music. Songs like “White Winter Hymnal” and “Ragged Wood” had some kind of simplicity and innocence that emnated from them. The group singing and harmonies were something that had not been used so prevelantly in recent years in music. I never even paid attention to the lyrics because the album created such a strong mood, a mood that was carefree and tailor made for the great summer I was having, the first summer of truly feeling like I might actually be an independent adult.

And now Helplessness Blues starts in medias res with that fantastic first line. The “so” suggests that a story has been started before we came in and now here we are, feeling insecure about being older than our parents were when they had their first child, when the had seemingly made the decision to grow up, to care about a life that they created. This is followed by Pecknold’s lament of “oh, man that I used to be, oh man, oh my, oh me,” which sounds very much like any person in their mid to late twenties who goes to work every day and then gets drunk on the weekends and tries to remember what it was to actually like and enjoy things and not just live in a world of waiting for night: waiting for work to end or waiting for it to be time to go out.

There is a darkness to the songs on this album. It is not something sinister or even darkly spiritual—one doesn’t get a sense of questioning their entire existence or the terrible things they are capable of doing. Instead, there is a sense of stock-taking. It is brooding music that is buoyed by the harmonies and the “folk” playing that have been carried over from Ragged Wood. The music on Helplessness Blues reminds me of late-era Simon and Garfunkel more than anything. Where the harmonies on Ragged Wood were so prevelant and startling that they almost seemed forced, though welcome and well-done. After repeated listens, Ragged Wood became a style of music that one played—a back to basics, folky independent rock that wouldn’t be complete without the angelic group harmonies. When you listen to Helplessness Blues a handful of times, you are left with the feeling that what you are listening to is important, that whatever you take from the songs will end up meaning something to you, that this album will be something that you return to in ten years. The harmonies are still there, but they are used to compliment the complexities of the subject matter and the sensations that the band are attempting to give word and music to. There is an heoric, rambling, cinematic quality to “Battery Kinzie” that wouldn’t have appeared on Ragged Wood. Likewise, “Lorelai,” using a Bob Dylan chord progression, is a song that is meaner, more concretely visual and haunting in its presentation of thinking about someone that you can’t love anymore. Who hasn’t spent part of their twenties having long nights with dreams about a lost love? Having dreams so vibrant that they could be real and that makes whatever loss you are feeling fresher than it felt before you went to sleep after a few beers

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When I finished the Cliff Walk in San Francisco, we waited for a bus in Sunset Park to take us back to the part of the city she lived in. We were both slightly red from the sun and our legs were tired. A slow wind blew along the desolate streets picking up sand and dirt. I thought of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and for some reason I started humming a song that an acquaintance of mine had written.

“What are you humming?” my old love asked.

This song ‘Take My Car.’ This guy that I know wrote it. Tony Wain.”

She looked away back to the sun over the Pacific. “Don’t know him.”

“He’s a good guy. One of those good people you meet sometimes.”

“Just good Topeka people,” she said.

I recognized the line from a movie I liked. “Do you want to see me feed a mouse to my snake?” I said playing along.

She laughed and we were both quiet as the small electric sign in the bus stop said that there were three more minutes until the bus came. I tried to whistle but my lips were dry and I decided that there was nothing to say.

*                          *                        *                         *                        *                       *

Your twenties are supposed to be the best and worst time of your life; too many movies and songs have tried to capture the aimless feeling of having youth, freedom and not a lot of money. But there is something absolutely attractive about it time and time again. We all look great in our twenties, we are allowed to make mistakes, pick the wrong job, the wrong apartment and the wrong lovers. Everything is at stake and yet nothing is at stake because we have no mortgage, no children, we having nothing to worry about but making money, paying the rent, getting laid and getting drunk. Yet, you listen to a song like “Battery Kinzie” on Helplessness Blues, a song that may not be as obviously poignant as some of the other track, and you can’t help but remember that the whole point of getting to the age of thirty is that you have to learn what it is that is important to take with you. When I hear the song, I think of myself has that heroic loner that I’ve always wanted to be, truly wandering and not caring where I end up. But the truth of the matter is that I know that’s not how it works. You end up wandering through your life, but you are not alone, you just pare things down to the essentials, to what is absolutely important. You find those simple things and you love the hell out of them because they are simple and they can be enjoyed. That’s what you do, even if it means realizing that you don’t recognize people, places and things that were once immensely important to you. And if someone tells you that loving something simple is boring, then they have no sense of adventure.


  1. As of late, certain songs from "Muswell Hillbillies" seem to accompany me in my mid-twenties, present-era nostalgia wanderings.

    Good read.

  2. Excellent album Niko. Never listened to it with that in mind. I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the kind words.