Most bands will never be great. They can change producers, members, hair-styles, but still, they just don't have it in them. The lucky few that are great usually take a few years to get there, ultimately hitting their stride around the third or fourth full-length. (Radiohead, U2.)
Then, there's the blessing and curse of the first album instant classic. Most bands that produce one, never write another, (Violent Femmes, Television) and have a relatively short life span, as if the strain of birthing something so profound on the first try was too much to survive.
Fleet Foxes eponymous, 2008 debut was a work of such dazzling beauty that other really good bands that debuted that year, (Vampire Weekend, MGMT) seemed mere shallow stylists by comparison.
What will happen to Fleet Foxes? Their particular amalgamation of CSNY, Simon and Garfunkel and Pet Sounds era Beach Boys is a fragile thing, not tailor-made for stadium success. Robin Pecknold, the band's impossibly pure-voiced lead singer and songwriter is an unlikely choice for rock stardom and his discomfort at his newfound status is a central theme on Fleet Foxes' fine new album, Helplessness Blues.
On the stunning title track, Pecknold sings, "What's my name, what's my station?/Oh just tell me what I should do/I don't need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you/Or bow down and be grateful and say "sure, take all that you see. /To the men who move only in dimly lit halls that determine my future for me." Not exactly another satisfied customer. In interviews, Pecknold has attempted to diminish expectations by describing the band as making "folk music." Sure, there's pretty acoustic guitar playing and occasionally the three-part harmony can come across as a bit Peter, Paul and Mary-precious. But make no mistake. All eyes are on Fleet Foxes like they were on Arcade Fire, waiting to see if they're the next great indie-rock saviours.
So, how good is the second Fleet Foxes full-length? It's pretty damned good. The strongest tunes are the ones that were leaked in advance: The title track, plus the infectious little drummer boy rolling pop of "Battery Kinzie", the epic sweep of "Grown Ocean" and the musically buoyant, but lyrically remorseful "Bedouin Dress." Add to that, "Montezuma" in which Pecknold channels the late Rick Danko of The Band and you've got half an albums worth of absolutely great tunes.
Much of what remains feels incomplete. The beautiful, contemplative ballad, "Someone You'd Admire" is begging for a final verse. "Blue Spotted Tail" is simple, but inconclusive and "The Cascades" is an instrumental from the last band on earth youd want to hear one from. Too often, the Foxes substitute their trademark majestic oohs and aahs for real songcraft. Although theres no other sound quite so entrancing in music today, it feels a bit empty this time.
Whats next for the band? They've taken strides musically, thrown in some tricky time signatures and attempted to explore longer forms, most notably on the multi-part, eight minute "The Shrine/An Argument," which features some of Pecknold's finest vocals to date. He breaks through all the prettiness, belting the lines "Sunlight over me, no matter what I do." Most people want to bask in the sunlight, but he shields his eyes, perhaps warding off all the unwanted attention. Like it or not, once expectations are built, fans are reluctant to let them go.
Helplessness Blues is a great album, but it's still their second best. In the coda to the title track, Pecknold envisions a different life for himself. "If I had an orchard I'd work till I'm sore/And you would wait tables and soon run the store." It's a peaceful vision for him and whoever he's bringing, but as long as Fleet Foxes keep making great records, it will probably elude him. "Someday I'll be like the man on the screen," he adds as the band tapers off. Pecknold is keeping it real by grappling so publicly with issues of identity, manhood, fortune and fame. Let's appreciate his struggle to retain his innocence, before he gives in.