They could easily have popped out another version of their debut in '09, but frontman Robin Pecknold's perfectionism and ambitions (and the band's tour schedule) meant that it would take much longer. Following unbearable delay after unbearable delay, expectations became a bit more like concerns. What was taking so long? Would it be a radical departure or merely a super-finessed version of what they had done before? After all, change too much, and they risked alienating fans who weren't fully invested in the band quite yet. The Flaming Lips can put out Embryonic because they're well into their career and don't need to worry about losing some people or getting middling reviews with a noisy, experimental record; their place in history and our hearts is already assured. On the other hand, if the Fleet Foxes change too little, they risk losing all the good will they had built up by taking too long to release something new while simultaneously playing it safe.
In the end, Helplessness Blues is exactly what you'd want in a second Fleet Foxes record. It is more ambitious and experimental yet never loses the band's gift for melodies and vocal harmonies, to which 'Battery Kinzie' and 'Lorelai', respectively, can attest. There's an obvious expansion of instruments employed as well. At times there is an almost Joanna Newsom-esque gypsy/ethnic sound, such as on 'Bedouin Dress' or the short instrumental 'The Cascades', probably inspired by Pecknold opening for her on tour. By and large, though, this is still the group you knew and loved on Fleet Foxes. That was a genuine surprise of a record, coming out of nowhere to top my list in 2008. Helplessness Blues, meanwhile, isn't a surprise, but it contains enough mini-surprises and new wrinkles to delight the listener just as well as their debut. 'The Plains/Bitter Dancer' is perhaps the best example of what this record has to offer, sporting an ambitious structure, gorgeous washes of wordless vocals, piano, flute, and clattering percussion. The one place where the Fleet Foxes falter is in the unnatural and forced saxophone skronk ending to 'The Shrine/An Argument.' Keep in mind, I am the last person to be turned off by noise and experimental elements, but there has to be a coherency to their implementation. In this case, it has no context whatsoever and disappears as quickly and haphazardly as it appeared. It's like some quixotic burst of noise was accidentally copied/pasted from a Deerhoof record when someone's cat jumped up on the computer or mixing console and no one ever caught the error.
Like the albums that followed the break-out records by other bands, the Fleet Foxes had to know that Helplessness Blues wasn't going to be as universally accepted as their debut even if it is as good, possibly better. I would consider Fleet Foxes an unqualified masterpiece. Helplessness, however, is going to require a bit more work and patience (not as much as a follow-up-to-a-break-out like MGMT's Congratulations, though) for fans to fall in love with, and I think it'll require some time before I'm sure what kind of masterpiece it is, assuming it even is one. What I can say for sure, at this point in time, is that it's everything you could want in a sophomore album from this band. It is simply more, and goes deeper than their debut while also ranging farther afield. With the new breadth and depth, though, there are still those moments of borderline-haunting beauty which made you fall in love with them the first time.
5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5