Helplessness Blues is the second studio album by Seattle, Washington-based folk band Fleet Foxes. It was released on May 3, 2011 as a follow-up to their eponymous 2008 Fleet Foxes album. Upon release, the album received universal acclaim from critics and was nominated for Best Folk Album for the 54th Grammy Awards. The release peaked at number 4 on the Billboard 200, the band's highest position on the chart to date. To support the album, the band embarked on a worldwide Helplessness Blues Tour.
Initially, Robin Pecknold had stated he would like the album to be released in 2009; however, the band's touring schedule had caused them some setbacks. They got together to rehearse new songs in February 2009 in a rented house outside Seattle, but the sessions were mostly scrapped. As a result of those wasted sessions, the band lost $60,000 of their own money. After their tour in support of the 2008 releases ended, the band's singer-songwriter mentioned the possibility of starting to record new songs, but Joshua Tillman, Fleet Foxes' drummer and co-song arranger, was scheduled to play Europe and North America all along the 2009-10 winter as part of his solo musical act. Added to this, Phil Ek, the band's producer and friend answered in an interview that he was likely to continue as the producer as Robin had already sent him some demos to start listening to. In an interview with Pitchfork Media, Pecknold stated he expected the album to be released sometime in the second half of 2010. In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Pecknold admitted that his girlfriend of five years found the stress this album placed on their relationship too much, and ended things. Upon hearing the completed album, she realized that Pecknold's efforts were worth it and they are working it out. The couple has since split up.
Pecknold has come out saying for their second album he tried to sound "less poppy, less upbeat and more groove-based". Taking inspiration from Roy Harper's folk album Stormcock, or at least its 12-string guitar he said: "That will be the primary sonic distancing from the last record". Added to this, he stated they wanted to record very quickly, saying he wanted to do the "vocal takes in one go, so even if there are fuck-ups, I want them to be on there. I want there to be guitar mistakes. I want there to be not totally flawless vocals. I want to record it and have that kind of cohesive sound. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, to me, is the best-sounding album because it sounds like there were only six hours in the universe for that album to be recorded in. So I want it to have that feeling."
The band had recorded since April 2010 in different locations (including West Hurley, New York) after two years of writing material and decided to scrap the earlier idea of a fast recording (though according to the band, the vocal takes as of yet have all been done in one take, perhaps in line with the original imperfect recording idea).
The album cover was illustrated by a Seattle artist Toby Liebowitz and painted by artist Christopher Alderson. The title track, "Helplessness Blues" was released via free download on January 31, 2011, and the album's fourth track, "Battery Kinzie" premiered on Zane Lowe's show on March 22, 2011. Their record label, Sub Pop, also released a downloadable music video made up of recording and other miscellaneous footage set to Fleet Foxes' song "Grown Ocean" on its site in support of the album. Additionally, the band released a 12" double A-side single of the title track backed with "Grown Ocean" for Record Store Day on April 16, 2011.
On November 1, 2011, Sean Pecknold released the official music video for "The Shrine / An Argument", which can be viewed on Sub Pop's YouTube account and Sean Pecknold's Vimeo account.
"It was at times difficult to make this record," writes Fleet Foxes’ lead singer Robin Pecknold in the self-penned press release for Helplessness Blues, citing illness, creative doubt and reassessment as factors the Seattle sextet grappled with in following up their massively popular, critically adored debut album. Not that you’d know it from a cursory listen: Helplessness Blues sounds every bit as assured as their earlier work, but given time to unfurl in your consciousness it displays facets of the band hitherto unseen. Peppered with ghostly harmonies and references to aging ”“ even breaking out into free jazz at one point ”“ it is a bigger, braver set than that which precedes it, suffused with both melancholy and sunshine.
Setting aside the adulation that greeted the band’s arrival (something Pecknold himself seems faintly baffled by), you’d be hard-pushed to label what Fleet Foxes are doing as anything particularly groundbreaking. Rather, the band place themselves firmly in the lineage of folk/rock greats from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to Brian Wilson and Pete Seeger, suffering none for it. In Someone You’d Admire it’s impossible to ignore the knowing winks to their antecedents, but the panache and confidence with which the band shapes their harmonies and maximise their melodic touch is second to none.
Astral Weeks is singled out as a major touchstone by Pecknold. While his honey-sweet tones are a million miles away from Van Morrison’s ragged howl, this record certainly shares something of the adventurousness that marked that LP. Over the sprawling, segmented eight minutes of The Shrine / An Argument, the band traverse from haunting trad-folk to a deep, mellifluous groove before finally bowing out in a flurry of brass, woodwind and strings. The song boasts Pecknold’s most affecting delivery to date, until the subsequent Blue Spotted Tail makes a case for being the loveliest in their catalogue; a plaintive finger-picked ballad contemplating relationships and mortality against a cosmic backdrop.
Helplessness Blues is born out of a fraught gestation period, touched by doubt, uncertainty and the travails of growing older and finding your place. But it is also a thing of beauty, and as the blissful outro of its title-track or the breathless, exuberant surge of closer Grown Ocean demonstrate, at its core lies a tangible sense of wonder and hope.