I'm going to come out of the gate with a bold statement, which is that Fleet Foxes' sophomore effort is even better than their debut. Every year we have multiple bands that blow people away with their debut albums; this year so far it's Yuck and The Vaccines, but most of them flop on their followup. Making their first album is a relatively simple process for most bands — they just go in and record the best songs they have, which they've usually been playing for a long amount of time already. There isn't much expected from them; the job of the debut album is simply to give listeners an idea of what the band is like. Most bands make it their definitive statement.
But the sophomore effort is a completely different animal. The songs have to be written and executed under pressure and usually within a short period of time, or else the band is either written off as old news or, in Fleet Foxes' case, the hype builds and builds. This is where most bands crack, and to me when a band succeeds at this point, it is a sign that they will be in it for the long run. Fleet Foxes have definitely succeeded.
They chose to take their time and let the hype build and expectations rise, but they matched them: that almost never happens. The safe move for a band that put out a big-time debut album is usually to ride the momentum from it and record a similar set of songs quickly to put out. But Fleet Foxes evidently did not want to do that. That would have resulted in a set of songs that wasn't quite as good as the debut album. Robin Pecknold was confident enough in his ability to match the expectations to take time out to make something great again, even though it took a while. It's somewhat reminiscent of Arcade Fire, who only put out an album every three years or so but each time they do, the album becomes classic. It speaks volumes that Fleet Foxes was able to pull this off — they are the real deal.
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Now that we've gotten past the hype and the process behind the album, time to talk about the most important aspect: the music. Fundamentally, it hasn't changed at all; there are still those beautiful, wintery harmonies that everyone came to love from Fleet Foxes (even though not quite as much as on the debut), it is still completely rooted in folk, and it still comes out very honestly. Fleet Foxes seem to be a band that really knows where the music comes from, they aren't just another indie band trying too hard to write something meaningful so they will be liked.
Pecknold as a songwriter comes off more maturely on this album, too. The first lines of the album show a new and more experienced perspective from Pecknold:
"So now I am older/ Than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?"
He's already examining himself and what he wants to be; that theme is continued throughout the rest of the album, especially on the title track. This kind of maturity on a sophomore album establishes Pecknold as one of the better folk songwriters in music.
The real thing that puts this album above their debut to me is that every song on the album is good, and the band manages to experiment a little. The most notable thing to mention musically is the eight-minute highlight "The Shrine/An Argument." It has four parts, ranging from a finger-picked opening that has Pecknold alternately whispering and singing his heart out, to the ending, an unexpected and unorthodox free-form saxophone solo. Besides the final part of this song, the album sounds exactly like you'd hope for a Fleet Foxes album to sound like.
There aren't any songs that are purely, at their core, as great as "White Winter Hymnal"; the band will likely never match that in their entire career, but the highlights from Helplessness Blues, which I'd say are the title track, opener "Montezuma," "The Shrine/An Argument," "Battery Kinzie," "Lorelai," and closer "Grown Ocean," all shine at least as brightly or even brighter than the rest of the songs on their debut album and Sun Giant EP.
This album is actually better than their debut because it really proved Fleet Foxes as a band: experimented a little, and had songs just as good as those on the debut. Definitely the best album out this year so far.