Fleet Foxes make music that hearkens back to the most euphoric of ’60s folk music, and the final product sounds like a blend of America and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with a touch of Nick Drake. The intricate arrangements on the band's self-titled 2006 debut LP generated a furious underground buzz in their hometown of Seattle, and they were eventually picked up by Sub Pop Records.
The band's 2008 EP, Sun Giant, truly launched them into the mainstream. Magazines and blogs raved about the silky, peaceful harmonies of songs like "Drops in the River," and soon, Starbucks was hawking the disk to Frappuccino lovers nationwide. A few months later, the band released their first full-length album, again to rave reviews. By the end of 2008, the band — fronted by singer Robin Pecknold, with whom Christian Wargo, Casey Wescott and Josh Tillman harmonize — was a legitimate success. They had made it.
That's why parts of the follow-up to Fleet Foxes, this year's utterly fantastic Helplessness Blues, were somewhat puzzling. For a guy who inhabits that most sparsely populated of groups — professional musicians making a decent living — Pecknold sure seems to lack self-confidence. Why would a person with such obvious artistic talent and individuality write lyrics, as he did on the Helplessness Blues title track, expressing such a shaky grip on his direction in life?
The first stanza of that song goes like this: "I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me"
Well, unlike so many millenials who, despite being devastatingly average maintain irrationally high senses of self-esteem and entitlement, the 25-year-old Pecknold certainly has reason to believe he can be more than a small, replaceable cog in some enormous corporate machine. The entirety of Helplessness Blues is a dreamy, enchanting and somewhat psychedelic reimagining of the best folk of the ’60s and ’70s, a feat has eluded many musicians before him. So what gives?
The pastoral yearnings about tending an orchard, as he expresses later in the song, reveal, perhaps, a yearning to get away from the pressures of success or fame, and the rest of the album contains similarly frustrating lyrics. Perhaps he is fed up with the business end of making music. Pecknold heavily implied to Westword's Kyle Eustice that the band might not be attached to a record label much longer.
"I don't know that we're really going to need a label for the things we're thinking about doing next," Pecknold said.
Whatever the reason for the existential ennui, it would be hard to believe it is related to the music. The band is on a distinctly upward trajectory. As Fleet Foxes performed at the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver last night, they seamlessly mixed songs from their earlier offerings with tracks from Helplessness Blues. The harmonies sounded flawless, and the instrumentation was just as good. The crowd really engaged during the band's third song, "Drops in the River," and cheered wildly throughout the whole of "Mykonos."
"Helplessness Blues" closed out the night to a small roar from the audience, its message of an arresting quarter-life crisis lost on, or perhaps resonating with, the crowd. It closed off a night of near-flawless music, and it showed a young band with tremendous musical chops at the top of their game. If only Robin Pecknold could accept that.