G.O.A.T. Series: Helplessness Blues

It’s apple picking season. People wear cable knit. The leaves turn.

In honor of autumn, here’s a G.O.A.T. series post devoted to an album that mentions apples six times, orchards five times, and a “collie ‘neath the table” once, Fleet Foxes’s 2011 Helplessness Blues.

When it was first released, I was a month away from graduation. The album was a departure from its predecessor – arcane and moody, with more to unpack. Even it’s cover art carried this air of mysterious foreboding, as though you could stare into it for hours and surface with nothing. I gave it a few spins, but the summery contentment of my last days of college didn’t cater to the depths of Helplessness Blues.

Then came the summer after graduation. I spent a week at my parents’ house in the northwest before driving down to San Francisco to couch surf and find work in the Bay Area. In between informational interviews and sweaty hikes through Chinatown in a pin-striped suit, I read and I thought about what I wanted to do with my life. There, in the summer fog of San Francisco, I rediscovered Helplessness Blues.

From the title track:

“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
But I don't, I don't know what that will be
I'll get back to you someday soon you will see”

Does any stanza sum the rambling condition of twenty-two better than the opening bars of Helplessness Blues? At the risk of cross-generational eye rolls and flirting with the superlative: no. I can’t write about these lyrics without getting treacle, so I’ll just leave it to say that during the summer of ‘11, this song resonated.

In the years since I’ve returned often to Helplessness Blues and found other delights.

From the opening finger picks of “Montezuma,” its notes echoing in amber reverb; to the feverish acoustic strums at the end of “Sim Sala Bim”, its guitar italicized by mandolin; to the rangy swagger of the slide in “Grown Ocean.” Front to back, Helplessness Blues is a beautiful listen.

And then there’s its imagery. I hear this album and I pine for the Northwest. Or a Greyhound bus ride through the country. Or a bowl of porridge in front of a fireplace. Helplessness Blues is an album about how we yearn for a simpler and quieter place. About confronting the morass of life’s complexities and, in the face of them, dreaming of the woods.

When Robin Pecknold longs for “an orchard” where he can work till he’s “raw,” we hear his words and (perhaps for the first time in our lives) think to ourselves, “I want an orchard where I can work till I’m raw. I want to pick apples.” That’s the power of the imagery in Pecknold’s lyrics. Like the wheat threshing scene in Anna Karenina, we hear this simple description of manual labor and crave it; its singular purpose, it closeness with nature, its feat by exhaustion.

This is the conceit of the album as a whole, that in the span of 49 minutes (or six minutes, in the case of its title track) it puts us between the “helplessness blues” of youth and the longing for simplicity and nature that follows it.

There’s a line in the second verse of “Montezuma,” the album’s opener, where Pecknold contemplates his deathbed, wondering whether he’ll look up and see people around him or “just cracks in the ceiling, with nobody else to blame.” It reminds me of Paul Harding’s 2008 novel, Tinkers. In its opening chapter, a man lies on his deathbed, staring into cracks in plaster. What follows in Tinkers is an impressionistic mind map of the man’s life, an anachronistic series of events enfolded in the beauty of nature.

Helplessness Blues follows a similar structure, with shifts in both narrative point-of-view (“Sim Sala Bim”) and in chronology, as Pecknold sings from the present day, looking forward (“Helplessness Blues”, “Someone You’d Admire”,) and from an indeterminate point in the future, looking back (“Bedouin Dress”, “The Shrine/An Argument”.) Throughout these shifts in perspective come the same impressionistic glimpses of nature that we see in Tinkers.

But where Tinkers ends in quiet limbo, a medley of life in final retrospective, Helplessness Blues, despite its tones of self-examination and regret, is still a work of optimistic youth, as it shows in its triumphant conclusion “Grown Ocean”. From its opening notes, the song distances itself from the rest of the album with a fast and steady tempo, building towards its euphoric zenith as Pecknold sings the second-to-last verse of the album.

“In that dream I could hardly contain it
All my life I will wait to attain it
Then, then, then

I know someday the smoke will all burn off
All these voices I'll someday have turned off then
I will see you someday when I've woken
I'll be so happy just to have spoken
I'll have so much to tell you about it then.”

There’s an unbridled joy here. Pecknold has considered what awaits him and has resolved to “attain” the best life he can. Then, as fast as the crescendo comes, it leaves. The backing instrumentals fall away, and Pecknold faintly sings the last three lines of the album, his previous confidence gone. And so even in the optimism of “Grown Ocean,” there’s a subtle unease. Pecknold knows the life he wants to live, but only in the broad and ineffable strokes of a “dream.”

That is Helplessness Blues. The swelling optimism of youth, the lingering concern that follows it; to know the feeling one wants, but not the life that will deliver it.

I love this album.