We’ve counted down our 10 Favorite Local Records of 2011, see what made the Top 10. –
#1. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
Since the release of their critically acclaimed self-titled debut album and EP Sun Giant in 2008, the Fleet Foxes have been credited and blamed for a lot in Seattle. The resurrection of a new Sub Pop. The resurgence of folk music, locally, nationally and internationally. A reinvigorated international interest in the music being made in Seattle. They’ve been heralded and hounded for their contributions to what it means to make music and listen to music in Seattle.
That’s a Sisyphean load for a 20-something (or anyone) to bear, and facing a world that was watching, a city and Internet full of opinions and the words “sophomore slump” hanging in the air, Robin Pecknold struggled. For years. Entire albums were scrapped in the making of Helplessness Blues. And while I would never wish it on someone, I am thankful for his struggle. Because from it came an album about the existential angst of what it means to be a success, not just as an artist, but as a human being. Pecknold’s angst may have been magnified living under a microscope in a way that few are, but this personal album is made a masterpiece by its universalism.
Yes, a masterpiece. Sixty listens in, I still hear something new every play of Helplessness Blues and when I say in sixty years I think I will too, it’s no exaggeration.
The material and the musicality is stormier, the lyrics starker and the orchestration unsettling. Zither, Moog, bass clarinet, mixed with skillful picking and Yeats inspired prose show what studious students of both traditional and modern folk the Fleet Foxes are. In the ‘60s you would have said the band had created a wall of sound on Helplessness Blues, but today I’d say its more of an ecosystem rich with detail. An immense album of varied landscapes and climates: the windswept hillsides of “The Plains / Bitter Dancer,” a teeming marketplace of smells and sounds in “Bedouin Dress,” the warm white paved streets of “Sim Sala Bim.” These places are never described, they are never named, but the music takes you there vividly.
Helplessness Blues, in the themes it tackles and in the geographical journey it takes, is huge. But life isn’t all big questions and forever vistas, and the play between the immensity and tininess of our lives grounds the record in a beautiful humanness. Pecknold examines life’s largest questions by attending to the smallest details: the scruffing of a dog’s neck under the table, a geometric patterned dress.
Most listens of Helplessness Blues leave me feeling overwhelmed. Not just by the scope and beauty of what I’ve heard but of the world around me, of what it means to live a fulfilled life. Or as Pecknold puts it himself in the album’s title track, “If I know only one thing it’s that everything that I see of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak.” Existence and the world around us are dumbfounding if you spend any time sitting and thinking about it all, look in the mirror too long and the form that stares back looks barely human, much less like ourselves. Helplessness Blues is that long look in the mirror where you’re not sure if what—or who—is staring back, whether it is beautiful or monstrosity or both.
For an album made with worry in its DNA, Helplessness Blues shows Fleet Foxes having made leaps thematically and musically and it shines with confidence as these songs play on the stereo or a live stage. Yet on “Someone to Admire,” Pecknold’s sparkling clear voice, a lithe vibrato quivering in its self-doubt, worries “After all is said and done I feel the same, all that I hoped would change within me stayed.” This dichotomy, that the strongest album of the year is at its heart deeply self-conscious of its very existence, is as fascinating to this listener as the lyrics or orchestration.
But as much self-conscious doubt there is, Helplessness Blues isn’t preoccupied with the struggle of existence, but the wonder of it, and in between the questions there are gratitudes, humble thanks for purpose, for success, and even, for failure. Most of all, for the chance to say and sing anything at all.
Helplessness Blues is a huge record. Sonically, commercially, philosophically. And its scope and impact, grand. But for me, Helplessness Blues is so much more than a skillfully made album or a sonic leap forward for a band or the pinnacle of music being made in the Pacific Northwest. These are songs I have gone to and used to understand and explain my own emotions at life’s largest moments, at passings and births. I have used them to help say goodbye forever and hello for the first time, to look in my own mirror and ask if I am content with what—or who—looks back and to move boldly forward to change when the answer was—or is—no. Helplessness Blues is more sage than song and I suspect I’ll be tapping into its wisdom and sense of wonder as long as I’m lucky enough to be part of this big, beautiful, overwhelming world.
“In that dream I could hardly contain it. All my life I will wait to attain it.”