Heard It All Before?

The day before the official release of the Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album Helplessness Blues, I was intently listening to NPR’s label-sanctioned stream when my twelve-year-old daughter broke in: “I really like this.”

Seeing the opportunity to get some unexpected help with this piece, I asked for her assessment of the record. “I feel like I’ve heard these songs before, even though I know I haven’t. They sound like they’re from long ago.”

I was delighted. Just two hours earlier, I’d written the following sentence about the band’s previous release: “The first time I put the Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut album on my stereo, I was sure that I’d listened it many times before. But the truth is that I hadn’t heard a single note of their music before that afternoon.”

It’s one thing for a middle-aged critic like myself to have that perception. I’ve heard a great deal of music over the years and, what is more, thought harder about its genealogy than most people would care to. But for my daughter to respond to the album that way is another thing entirely.

I can produce a long list of the influences I hear in Helplessness Blues, everything from Gregorian Chants to Animal Collective, with emphasis on Sixties stalwarts like Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. As gifted a musician as my daughter is, however, most of the artists on my list wouldn’t mean anything to her. The past that she hears in the Fleet Foxes is more than a list of names.

Asked to assign a genre to the album, she labeled Fleet Foxes “pretty rock”, adding that a number of songs reminded her of the Peter, Paul and Mary albums she’d loved as a pre-schooler. “I don’t know why, Dad, but I keep picturing myself on the way to Legoland.”

Her recollection was accurate. We did have Peter, Paul and Mary on in the car prior to her first visit to the Southern California amusement park. She was only three at the time, an age that she doesn’t normally recall. Helplessness Blues seemed to have opened up a doorway in her mind.

“Is that weird?” I told her it wasn’t, pressing her for more observations. The next song on the album started playing. And she began to sing along, despite never having heard it, before pausing to finish her commentary. “The difference between this music and ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ is the echo. That makes it sound gothic.”

When I returned to Helplessness Blues later, I couldn’t stop thinking of her response to the record. Although she had recognized that the album didn’t have much in common with Peter, Paul and Mary aside from multi-part harmonies and the lack of a driving back beat, she felt compelled to connect them. The Fleet Foxes didn’t sound like her pre-school favorites so much as they sounded like remembering them.

That distinction is the perfect place to start a discussion of what makes the Fleet Foxes special. Like its predecessor, Helplessness Blues conjures an overpowering sense of déjà entendu, the already heard. This is why the record insinuates itself as “classic”, the sort of music one might hear on a satellite radio station that plays only decades-old material. But the strange thing is that the band doesn’t sound that much like any specific forebear.

Indeed, “classic” is an apt word for the band’s sound because they do with popular music what neo-classical architects often did with space. The Corinthian columns and soaring vault of a nineteenth-century railway station may bring Roman or Byzantine models to mind, but the manner of its construction and the function it serves separate it from the very tradition its creator wished to evoke.

Curiously, this quality also manifested itself in the music of a band with whom the Fleet Foxes would seem to have nothing in common. After the excesses of prog rock, The Ramones were widely praised for their back-to-basics approach. Yet the truth of the matter is that their music was every bit as new as the synthesizer-driven experimentation of Kraftwerk. Nothing had ever sounded like The Ramones before; it just seemed that way.

What The Ramones authoritatively demonstrated back in 1976 is that the essence of rock is not an historical construct, but an effect conjured in spite of chronological time. The musicians who followed in their footsteps weren’t getting back to where they once belonged, as The Beatles famously suggested, but making their way into territory where no one had ever set foot. Progress, in other words, came in the robes of primitivism.

The example of first-wave punk may seem antithetical to everything Fleet Foxes stand for, but the analogy proves extremely productive. For, just as The Ramones inaugurated an era of rock music no longer preoccupied with its actual past, Fleet Foxes are leading the way into a new age in which the concept of rock itself seems obsolete.

It’s no accident that the band’s debut album topped many critics’ lists in 2008, nor that it settled so easily into playlists at businesses like Starbucks. Simply put, the Fleet Foxes make music that dissolves the last vestiges of the generation gap. It has something for almost everyone, from a pre-teen who loves the Glee soundtracks to a pre-Boomer who still hasn’t forgiven Elvis Presley for rendering the big-band music of the 1940s obsolete.

This relentless palatability, a refusal to entice some listeners at the expense of others, represents the perfect inversion of punk. Instead of cultivating an us-versus-them mentality by deliberately provoking disgust, the Fleet Foxes make such distinctions seem like the last remnants of a benighted historical period. Their music doesn’t make cuts, it heals them.

That’s why Helplessness Blues marks a significant step forward for the band. Because, although the new album initially sounds every bit as welcoming as its predecessor, an invitation to slip free from the shackles of taste, lead songwriter Robin Pecknold and his collaborators have found a way to introduce disquiet into their post-distinction world.

The lyrics are more naked this time around, their themes considerably darker. And the ornamentation at the margins of the band’s expansive soundscapes introduces peripheral discord into the outwardly soothing mix. To enter this Fleet Foxes record is still to feel as if one were being transported back into pre-history, prior to the pains of separation. But this aural womb no longer feels completely safe. Something outside poses a threat, however muffled the warning signs may be.

Helplessness Blues certainly gives fans of the Fleet Foxes’ debut album more of what they love. Even when the café-friendly vibe is disrupted, most prominently during the saxophone squalls at the end of “The Shrine/An Argument”, the band never wholly abandons the peculiar synthesis of pre- and post-rock that has become their trademark.

This time around, though, the déjà entendu is suffused with a melancholy dread, prodding listeners to interrogate the music’s simple pleasures. The invitation to escape the present is still there, but now the emergency exit is marked by glowing red letters. No matter how hard we try to block them out, they are always there to remind us of the troubles we left behind.

Even though the music is so welcoming, Helplessness Blues is not for everyone. Those who still want their culture with an edge may find the album’s beauty dull. It’s not the sort of music to inspire struggle. But if you are willing to enter the Fleet Foxes’ world without forgetting your reason for being there, this record has the potential to enlighten. Sometimes the road to renewal passes through the past. And sometimes the past is what needs to be new.

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