Before lauded Seattle folk/baroque pop sextet Fleet Foxes announced their sophomore release, the rather interestingly-titled Helplessness Blues, they revealed in interviews that the album would focus more heavily on lyrics and less heavily on pop structure. The album’s title track follows through on this strategy, and it presents a bit of a difficult dichotomy.
You see, “Helplessness Blues” is the lead single. And while a song’s worth should not be judged on the same scale as its worth as a single, Fleet Foxes have heaped expectations and qualifications upon the song by choosing it as the first single from their May release. Granted, nowadays, the radio is in a downward spiral, and song length (over 5 minutes) and catchiness (very little in the traditional sense) don’t amount to a whole lot, especially from a band that is not mainstream.
But even the best chef may sometimes be judged solely on his appetizer, because it brings assumptions with it about the quality of the rest of his course. Sadly, “Helplessness Blues” does not fulfill the role of a lead single as an appetizer. It lacks replayability, and its harmonies—all too similar to those from 2008′s Fleet Foxes—are slightly stale where they once were refreshing.
This is not to say that the track is of poor quality. It isn’t. In fact, it is extremely well-crafted, and would make a wonderful deep track—one of those songs that never causes you to play an album, but is instead a pleasant surprise when it accidentally comes on. The lyrics are introspective, the murmur of a man so scared to make his own path that he’d rather, “Be a functioning cog in some great machinery.” They turn an odd corner three fourths of the way through the track, however, and almost seem meant for a different song.
For those unfamiliar with Fleet Foxes, this shouldn’t be your first experience. It is not an effective appetizer—like, say, “Mykonos” or “White Winter Hymnal.” It is not a work of folk magic like “Blue Ridge Mountains.” It is simply a moment’s interest, like the dragonfly swooping past, and not like the gentle river over which the dragonfly soars, which one could walk along for the rest of one’s life.
Fleet Foxes’ first album was part of the river—and if “Helplessness Blues” is indeed an unfitting appetizer, the second album might be as well.
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