In 2008, Fleet Foxes, an indie folk band from the Pacific Northwest, released an EP and LP that would pull them from the depths of the local Seattle music scene and bring them to the international stage. Both the Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes were acclaimed by critics and the public alike and the band became a staple in the American folk scene. Following this influx of recognition and praise, the band set to work recording their sophomore release in 2009. After three years worth of false starts, endless song scrapping and personal relationships thrown into turmoil, Fleet Foxes released Helplessness Blues.

Fleet Foxes was bright, something light and airy and fresh that had a pureness to it. Robin Pecknold offered up his songs as if to say, “Here, look at what I can do.” There were no pretentions; just a solid showing of what one young and talented band was capable of. When Helplessness Blues came to be, the world knew what Fleet Foxes could do. There were expectations of soaring group harmonies and frolicking, user-friendly melodies. Instead of simply continuing along that same path of upbeat folk or completely diverging in a misguided attempt to re-imagine their sound, the band took the essential core of the Fleet Foxes experience and skewed it slightly, darker.

Helplessness Blues was written and rewritten, finished, then trashed as Pecknold struggled both with the writing process and his largely discussed problems in his personal life. What came from this strenuous and drawn out writing process is an album that is more hesitant and intimate than their previous release. Retrospective guilt, the desire to do something that benefits others and the unfulfilled expectations we place upon ourselves are the threads that continue through the album and straight into the gut of anyone who listens to Pecknold’s sucker punch lyrics. It’s impossible to not feel connected on some level to his fears of being selfish and unable to change. Selfishness is both inherently human and something none of us want to be associated with.

On the album’s opening track, “Montezuma,” Pecknold immediately delves deep into feelings of inadequacy and inherent selfishness that even death can’t defeat. He sings, “Oh how could I dream of such a selfless and true love?/ Could I wash my hands of just looking out for me?” He questions his own motivations and limitations throughout the album and for the most part doesn’t come to any concrete conclusions. This, more than Pecknold’s warm, round voice and the flawlessly recorded instrumentals is what makes Helplessness Blues one of the best albums of the last decade. Fleet Foxes make it sound okay to be unsure about the future or even yourself.

From an early age we are bombarded with the idea of “finding yourself” and given various conflicting pathways to get to that transcendental moment when you have finally found yourself. Once you’ve managed to locate yourself everything else in your life will seemingly fall into place and everything will be sunshine and rainbows. By questioning not only what is important to him, but if he is even capable of reaching the lofty goals he has set for himself, Pecknold disregards this idea completely. He simply poses more and more questions and delves deeper and deeper until finally the album ends and there really isn’t any sort of resolution, and that’s okay.

With Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes were able to take the sound that they so carefully crafted on Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes and utilized it as a vehicle for an open discussion of the self and each person’s duties to the world we inhabit. It gets dark, it ebbs and flows as melodies rise and fall to the drama of the lyrics they support and through it all, Pecknold is there to delicately guide us through. Five years later and Helplessness Blues is just as emotionally arresting as the day it was released and just as important.

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