Examining Helplessness Blues

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Fleet Foxes is one of my favorite bands, and their 2011 album “Helplessness Blues” might be my favorite album from them. Hell, it might be one of my five favorite albums ever. (Their other two albums are also excellent.)

The entire record has a dreamy sort of vibe to it. Listening to the album on vinyl on a rainy day is my peak mood. Join me as I go through and listen to each track again (for, like, the billionth time) and jot down some of my thoughts.

The band had an interesting lineup for this record, as it was the brief period when Josh Tillman (aka Father John Misty) played drums and sang harmonies. Although I’m not a huge fan of Tillman’s work outside of Fleet Foxes, the man certainly made his mark during his time with the band.

The album starts with one of the best songs on the record, “Montezuma.” It’s such a staggering tone-setter for the album, with great lyrics and beautiful guitar lines. The opening words are arguably the best lyrics Pecknold has penned to date:

So now I am older
Than my mother and father
When they had their daughter
Now what does that say about me?

I always get chills as he sings that verse.

The song goes on to ask existential questions, and along the way makes historical references to boot.

The second track, “Bedouin Dress,” is a low key great Fleet Foxes song. I get a strong Fleetwood Mac vibe from the song, likely due to the fact that Pecknold has cited Fleetwood Mac as a strong influence on his work. The rhythm, vocals, and overall feel of the song lineup with some of Fleetwood Mac’s hits.

There’s one part near the end of the song that really clicks with me.

In the street one day I saw you among the crowd
In a geometric patterned dress
Green and white, just as I recall
Old as I get I will never forget it at all

I just love that line. There are definitely picturesque memories branded into my mind that, no matter how much time passes, I cannot escape.

The use of violin during the song’s hook, along with the vocal melodies, really ties everything together and completes the song, in my opinion.

“Sim Sala Bim” is the first track to really get things weird on this album. And, to be clear, I use the word weird as a term of endearment.

The song opens with Pecknold painting the picture for the listener, something in which Pecknold is quite skilled.

He was so blind, such a gentleman tied to the oceanside
Lighting a match on the suitcase’s latch in the fading of light
Ruffled the fur of the collie ‘neath the table
Ran out the door through the dark
Carved out his initials in the bark

The rhythm dramatically shifts near the end of the song and the band goes into an instrumental sort of shuffle. It’s one of those songs where the casual listener will skip to the next track at this point, but in the process miss out on some fun guitar melodies.

“Battery Kinzie” is maybe the most unusual song on the record. I think the first 10 times I listened to it, I had 10 different interpretations. Based on a cursory Google search, there I discovered there’s apparently some meaning in the song’s title tied to some military structure in Seattle (where the band was formed). However, I think the song is still interesting without the aid of context from Pecknold’s intent while penning the song.

I’ll admit that this was a song that had to grow on me. The use of “wide-eyed walker,” a phrase that seemed nonsensical to me at first, in the chorus was a turn off. But I came around.

The song tells an ambiguous story that could be loosely interpreted as a kidnapping, a murder, or even a traditional love story. That’s part of the fun in songs like these, applying your own life experiences and understanding in interpreting what it means to you, even if it means something else to others (even the writer).

Track no. 6 is the first of two tracks on the album that combine two names together, “The Plains/Bitter Dancer.” Essentially, with songs like these, I like to think of them as songs with different phases, or maybe even different songs mixed together to form one bigger idea.

In the first part of the song, the listener is treated to a whimsical instrumental featuring acoustic guitar work reminiscent of Fleet Foxes’ debut album. In the second part, Pecknold brings his lyric-writing chops.

Just as the sand made everything round
Just as the tar seeps up from the ground
Bitter dancer, ever turning
So was the day that you came to down

Whoa. All right, let’s catch our breaths with that one.

I love the way Pecknold starts back-to-back lines with “Just as the . . . .” It’s truly one of my absolute favorite songwriting tropes. In the wrong hands, it can be hokey. Fortunately, it was in the right hands here.

Next up, We have the title track, “Helplessness Blues.” This song is the first big challenger to “Montezuma” for the title of “best song on the album.”

I love the start of this song. The way he starts with an emphasis on the E string as he strums the opening chord. The rhythmic way he resets each bar with his strumming. It’s just fantastic song construction with such a simple, single chord to begin. Bravo.

Then, Pecknold kicks in with his lyrics:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

But now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

Keep in mind this was written in 2011, before the right wing co-opted the word “snowflake” as an attack on people on the left, and then when people on the left stole the phrase from people on the right to use it as an attack of their own. These lyrics were not political, at least not in the traditional “Republican v. Democrat” sense of the word.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s fascinating to ponder whether Pecknold meant this song as a goodbye to the band and his fans. He eventually would leave the band to return to school, perhaps that is him going on to be a “functioning cog” of sorts. Speaking of which, the chorus (with variations on lyrics) plays into that same idea:

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

He did eventually get back to us in the form of Fleet Foxes’ reunion and third album in 2017.

The momentum keeps building with each verse, as he tells us of people pulling the strings behind the scenes and of a general angst within himself. It all leads up to the paradigm shift in the second part of the song.

Skyler Skjelset has a cool little electric guitar interlude here where he does a trick of rapidly picking each single note in a series that, if otherwise not picked in this way, would be a simple little pattern. It jives perfectly with the changing mood of the song.

Pecknold ends things by singing of how things would be different if he “had an orchard.” This plays in so nicely with the earlier lyrics in the song and in telling the overall story. If it weren’t for the great way this album ends (more on that later) I would call possibly the ideal note to end the album on…and yet here we are, roughly halfway through. Sheesh, what an album.

As an aside, I saw Fleet Foxes in Nashville in May 2018 and they played an incredible version of this song with an all new intro verse. As great as this song is recorded, it might be even better live.

Now, on to “The Cascades,” which has the distinction of being both the shortest song on the record and the only purely instrumental song. This is another song that evokes shades of Fleet Foxes’ debut album, albeit with a bit more sophistication in the raw instrumentation.

This is one of those songs that reminds me of walking through a well-worn dirt path in the autumn as the trees are filled with leaves of different colors, each leaf slowly finding its way to the ground. OK, maybe that was a hokey sentence to write, but, man, this song really hits my imagination in a certain way.

Although it might be a popular pick as the weak link on the album simply by not having any of Pecknold’s skillful lyric-writing attached to it, the song still captures that Fleet Foxes feel, and I can’t bring myself to skip past it (I mean, come on, it’s two minutes of beautiful melodies).

“Lorelai” is among my favorite songs to sing along to whenever it pops up on a playlist. The song opens with just beautiful harmonic vocals blending with a nice arpeggiated acoustic chord progression. It seems to tell the story of a lover who lost interest.

So, guess I got old
I was like trash on the sidewalk
I guess I knew why
Often it’s hard to just sweet talk

It also helps my interest in this song that the chorus plays as a perfect pun on my last name (Old) and my former profession (working in news):

I was Old news to you then
Old news, old news to you then

My favorite part of the song is the breakdown at the bridge. It’s perfection–everything you want a bridge to do: It shakes up the structure of the song and connects the early and late portions of the song. The lyrics remain strong, and I’m a huge fan of the fade out at the end of the track.

Oh man. This song. It probably bests “Helplessness Blues” and “Montezuma.” And that’s saying something, because both of those songs are legitimate five-star songs. “Someone You’d Admire” is a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music. It’s a must-listen for anyone who enjoys music.

I would argue these lyrics are the closest Pecknold has come to writing the perfect lyrics to capture a song’s mood. That’s not in any way a knock toward any of his other lyric-writing examples, it’s just to underscore how much he hits it out of the park with this song.

After all is said and done, I’ll feel the same
All that I hoped would change within me stayed
Like a huddled, moonlit exile on the shore
Warming his hands a thousand years ago

Damn. Man, those are some lyrics. It’s just staggering how good these lyrics are. The line “All that I hoped would change within me stayed” is possibly my favorite line from any song. It captures so much of the essence of the human struggle. I mean, EVERYONE can relate to that on a certain level, right?

Also, although it almost certainly was not something he did intentionally, I love the use of the word “exile” here, because any time I remember that word, it reminds me of my all-time favorite album “Exile on Main Street” by The Rolling Stones. These last two lines also set up the next verse:

I walk with others in me yearning to get out
Claw at my skin and gnash their teeth and shout
One of them wants only to be someone you’d admire
One would as soon just throw you on the fire

Damn. I can’t even. I need someone to hold me right now with all the feels I get from this song.

This is another very relatable verse, but on a much darker level. Like, there’s so many different parts of me that want to burst through and be the me that everyone knows. And not all of them are necessarily the best.

I know I already said another thing was one of my favorite songwriting tropes, but this song features another of my favorites: referencing earlier lyrics. Sure, it’s literally the easiest thing to do in songwriting because you already did the heavy lifting in the early part of the song by writing the line that’s worth referencing, but I’m still really into it.

After all is said and after all is done
God only knows which of them I’ll become

And with that, Pecknold ends the song with a damn-near mic drop. This song is important to me not just because it’s such an obviously great song, but also because it’s my little brother’s favorite song. It’s one of the many bonds that hold us together, and we sing this song (and, really, all of Fleet Foxes’ songs) quite often.

OK, I know the last track was quite the emotional ride, but stay buckled in because “The Shrine/An Argument” is a doozy. I’ll admit that when I first heard this song, my gut reaction was some form of “wtf.” I’ve come around, however. This song is very good.

It starts with Pecknold’s soft vocals over an interesting little rhythmic acoustic guitar. Things take a bit of a left turn with the refrain:

Apples in the summer are golden sweet
Every day a passing complete

The shift in the tempo and rhythm here threw me off at first, but has grown on me with time. The song continually builds toward the second phase, when it hits its climax.

As the drums come in, played to the melody, you can just feel it. Something epic is here.

In the morning waking up to terrible sunlight
All diffused like skin abused the sun is half its size
When you talk you hardly even look in my eyes
In the morning, in the morning

I love the rhymes within a line in the second line of the verse with “diffused” and “abused,” while keeping the slant rhyme of “sunlight” and “size” at the end of the first two lines.

The next verse keeps up the pace, and leads into the strongest line of the song: “In the ocean washing off my name from your throat,” which Pecknold repeats for effect, and it really hits home.

At this point, the song dramatically shifts again, with the tempo coming to a screeching halt. Pecknold now starts singing about “green apples” from his “green apple tree,” which has some obvious parallels to “Helplessness Blues,” when he laments that if he had an orchard, he’d work till he’s sore.

The song ends with one of the weirdest parts of any Fleet Foxes song: the argument. For those who have watched the music video created by Pecknold’s brother, it seems to add maybe just a little bit of context, in that the sound the band is going for here is not necessarily like anything else they’d ever done before.

The sound is all over the place, unconstrained. It was hard for me to listen to for a long time, but now I have a unique appreciation for it, even if I don’t outright love it.

I’m not sure the album could go into a more different song that the previous one when “Blue Spotted Tail” starts. This track is a simple yet fun acoustic guitar accompanied by soft vocals from Pecknold.

While the guitar and vocals are stellar as always, the real star of this song happens to be the terrific lyrics.

Why in the night sky are the lights hung?
Why is the Earth moving ’round the sun?
Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one
Why in the night sky are the lights hung?

The song is rounded out with three more verses of existential questioning and longing. It’s not among the very strongest songs on the album, merely by virtue of the very best songs on this album being such top-shelf material, however the lyrics are still some of Pecknold’s finest work. It serves as an ideal palette cleanser between the aggressive and manic-depressive mood swings of “The Shrine/An Argument” and the album’s exquisite closer.

That closer is “Grown Ocean,” the song that, for my money, is the best song on the album and probably my favorite Fleet Foxes song overall. It was a slow build-up to this song, and the payoff is worth it.

The song opens with a steady kick drum, setting the mood and energy as slide guitar and harmonized vocals singing “ooh” come in the drag the listener through an aural journey for the next few minutes.

I’m very obviously a huge fan of Pecknold’s lyric-writing chops, and that’s certainly true for this song. He absolutely delivers from the opening line.

In that dream I’m as old as the mountain
Still as starlight reflected in fountains

I love the imagery. But he’s just getting started.

Children grown on the edge of the ocean
Kept like true love and kept with devotion
In that dream moving slow through the morning

There we go, the title is dropped right there in the opening verse, and Pecknold again refers to this dream he’s having. The next verse keeps things going strong.

You would come to me then without answers
Lick my wounds and remove my demands for now
Eucalyptus and orange trees are blooming
In that dream there’s no darkness a looming
In that dream moving slow through the morning time

Some might see this as a bit pretentious, but I really love how he somehow managed to use “eucalyptus” there. He could have gone with any type of tree or plant and maintained a certain imagery, but he went with the one that fit right rhythmically and that maintained the specific mental image he wanted the listener to have.

The next verse, in my opinion, references the finite nature of one’s existence.

I know someday the smoke will all burn off
All these voices, I’ll someday have turned off them
I will see you someday when I’ve woken
I’ll be so happy just to have spoken
I’ll have so much to tell you about it then

Near the end of the song, the rhythm winds down and the melody fades to an a capella singing:

Wide-eyed walker
Don’t betray me
I will wake one day, don’t delay me
Wide-eyed lever
Always going

These mysterious lyrics sung without accompaniment are such an interesting way to end the album. Knowing now that the band would go on a five-year hiatus following the release of this album (and not release a follow-up record until six years after the release of “Helplessness Blues”), I can’t help but feel that the end of this song is meant as a sort of a goodbye, a sendoff from Pecknold to his fans.

“I will wake one day, don’t delay me.” Perhaps Pecknold was letting his fans know he would be back, but he and the band just needed some time off to re-calibrate themselves personally and creatively.

Up until “Crack-Up,” the band’s follow-up record in 2017, I thought of this song as such a bittersweet closing to one of my favorite bands. It was like lightning struck, and for two incredible records they released several memorable songs ending with “Grown Ocean.”

Even with the band coming back together, this song holds a seminal part of my heart, and it remains among my all-time favorite songs from any band. What a way to close a great record.

Thanks for indulging me and coming along for the ride.

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