Album: Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues" (Sub Pop)
There's a moment about halfway through "Sim Sala Bim" -- a lovely, pastoral cut, and the third song on Fleet Foxes second album, "Helplessness Blues" -- past the gently swelling strings and the cooing two-part harmonics, Robin Pecknold intones something about cutting someone's hair and them calling him Delilah.
The guitar strings sweetly jangle, then explode like firecrackers. The moment lingers and then disappears into the fade, but there's a sudden certainty that the stakes have been raised. There is something extraordinary about what's going down here.
Followups to successful debuts are a delicate science. Bands spend years perfecting the same set of 10 or 12 songs, polishing them to a high sheen on the road before preserving them on studio tape at the top of their game. The second time around, they're expected to do all that again, except in a fraction of the time it took the first time. It's no mystery why they fail so often.
Fleet Foxes blow past the sophomore slump like an 18-wheeler jamming through a roadblock in a '70s Burt Reynolds movie. The band draws from a rich palette of musical influences throughout "Helplessness Blues," from the mystic soul ramblings of Van Morrison to the dope-tinged folk of English balladeer Roy Harper, and back through the mournful back alleys of Greenwich Village via a previously untapped Simon and Garfunkel fixation.
The result is both an expansion of and a liberation from the babbling brook meadow-pop that dominated the band's self-titled 2008 debut and it's immediate predecessor, the "Sun Giant" EP. The song structures that dominated the group's earlier work remain in place -- there will be nothing jarringly foreign to old fans here -- but the walls and floors have been stripped bare and decorated with new paint and textures.
The band paints in broad strokes throughout the album, and Pecknold seems bolder, more willing to just put his head down and go for it in a rock and roll sense this time. "So now I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now, what does that say about me?" Pecknold asks right at the start, leading off the album's lush opening cut, "Montezuma." The set lopes along at cruising speed until the aforementioned "Sim Sala Bim" and then seems to reach an extra gear: "Battery Kinzie" has every indication of an epic tale -- though it's hard to pin down exactly whose fable is being woven -- but it doesn't overstay its welcome.
Most of the songs on "Helplessness Blues" feel much longer than they actually are because so much seems to be going on inside of them. The auspiciously named "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" unravels a fascinating universe inside its five-minute runtime, and manages to include a baroque chorus, what sounds like a glockenspiel, a half dozen tempo/time changes and an eerie approximation of Slick/Balin circa "Surrealistic Pillow" during its middle bridge part, which arc-welds "Greensleeves" to a strangely non-awkward metaphor about time being a dancer. Or something.
Meaning is slightly elusive in most Fleet Foxes songs, which is acceptable because Pecknold spends so much time setting the table with his voice that the literal meaning of songs seems secondary to the colors and shades of the emotions evoked by them.
But "Helplessness" in large part seems to be a breakup record. "I was old news to you then," Pecknold sings in the sad-sack tale "Lorelei," his voice surprisingly light as he recounts an old flame he seems to miss bitterly, and the regret he feels at not holding up his end of the bargain. Just as quickly he's on to the Dylanesque "Someone You'd Admire," which feels thematically linked to the previous cut, perhaps telling his lost Lorelei that lord knows he's trying to be a better person, but there's two of him: "One of them wants only to be someone you'd admire/One would as soon just throw you on the fire."
The towering seven-minute "The Shrine/An Argument" builds this remarkable album to a logical peak. "Sunlight over me no matter what I do," Pecknold sings, his voice straining with emotion. Yet another song suite, the piece marches in and out of several rooms, with a mirror version of Pecknold in each one trying desperately to wash old memories off of himself.
The set concludes with "Blue-Spotted Tail," which feels both entirely familiar and completely new, and "Grown Ocean," where Pecknold sounds hopeful at last, his earlier self-directed bitterness put away for the moment while he recounts a dream where he's able to say everything he had always wanted to say to someone he loved and maybe lost. It's a very adult moment on a very adult record, and will stand as a highlight of one of this year's best albums.