Ever since their near explosion out of Seattle in 2008, Fleet Foxes have been the epitome of calm and composure in everything they’ve done – a stark contrast to the musical background of the city that harboured them. Their live shows, characterised by pinpoint harmonies and an unassuming yet commanding stage presence, have ensured that their sophomore effort – unlike their debut – is surrounded by a huge weight of expectation. Still, nothing seems to phase the sextet; Helplessness Blues is just as measured as anything they’ve done, and the songwriting just as good.

It’s a different kind of record to the one they put out three years ago, although it’s undeniably a Fleet Foxes endeavour. Inspired by Stormcock and Astral Weeks according to the band, Helplessness Blues is a generous stylistic homage to folk records of old. The music comes very naturally to the foreground, unshielded by excessive attention or unnecessary production values, and it feels a lot looser than previously. Indeed the album’s eponymous debut single is a fitting example of this stylistic shift, and the entire first half sees frontman Robin Pecknold left virtually alone to muse with his guitar. There’s a greater focus on simple, repetitive finger-picking to provide the backbone of the album’s tempo (midway track ‘The Cascades’ being one of many examples) and although Pecknold makes no effort to play with the accustomed inch-perfect precision, it feels right. In fact it’s remarkable that an album that was recorded twice sounds so effortless.

In contrast to the looseness of the instrumentation, the melodies and accompanying harmonies sound tighter than before. They’re still as beautiful as ever, mind, but where there was once the soaring group crescendo of ‘White Winter Hymnal’ there is now a more direct, perhaps even linear approach to the delivery, and the distinction between Pecknold’s voice and those of the remaining band members is made clearer. Solo moments like the delicate, wispy vocals on ‘Sim Sala Bim’ followed by rough acoustic strumming just wouldn’t have featured before.

In spite of these more individual pieces the band are still able to capture that layered, collective sound which they master so well, particularly on ‘The Plains/Bitter Dancer’ which gradually layers a simple riff with soft percussion and those weightless, overlapping ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ we’ve come to expect. It’s also one of the few tracks where bassist Christian Wargo has any real prominence, which accounts in part for the slightly thinner, less crowded  instrumental feel of the record. Yet for all its calmness and restraint, Helplessness Blues is no less visual or emotive than its predecessor, it’s just that Pecknold’s lyricism is now doing more of the legwork. Amidst the fervent throng of closing track ‘Grown Ocean’ you can single it out clearly, and in fact anyone who watched the band perform on Jools Holland recently would have seen him hoarsely shouting ‘All my life I will wait to attain it’ into the microphone. It’s like he has a new meaning and belief in his lyrics, and the band have arranged the album to make sure it gets heard.

Helplessness Blues is out now on Bella Union.

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