Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fleet Foxes: Living The Questions

"...the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now." ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
Living the questions requires faith in the process, a belief that the journey is enough in and of itself. Rilke passed that advice on to 19-year-old Franz Kappus over a hundred years ago and Letters to a Young Poet has survived as a testament to the idealism of youth ever since. Seattle-based band Fleet Foxes have taken that legacy to heart and their new album - Helplessness Blues - is a heroic affirmation of Rilke's wisdom.

"I was raised up believin'
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinkin'
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"

As Lisa Simpson might say, "it is very cromulent," but all that earnestness about snowflakes made my toes curl and my upper lip sneer at first. Then at 0:45, when the guitars fire up and the vocals take flight, it all clicks into place and my heart responds as it usually does when confronted with something beautiful and pure. This is devotional music celebrating life's wonder and while some of the lyrics may despair ("Montezuma"), the power of the execution raises it from any mire of futility.

There's not one note of irony or cynicism to be found in this cornucopia of bliss and the lyrics on Helplessness Blues manage to avoid cloyingly naive or simplistic platitudes. Unlike other bands mining similar territory like Mumford & Sons or Midlake, Fleet Foxes display a richer melodic palette and a greater lyrical prowess on such songs as "Battery Kinzie" and "Bedouin Dress." As with Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Song For the Asking" or "America," the songs speak to a larger sense of being:

Tomorrow is Bob Dylan's 70th birthday and it's fitting that lead singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold has cited him, along with Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, as a major influence. Pecknold's writing bears some resemblance to Dylan in that it privileges the confessional speaker, but the music soars cathedral-like and harmonious, bringing to mind the collective art of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Hollies.

This is a band with huge aspirations and vision, but don't expect any answers; as a Celtic Sufi once sang, "be satisfied not to read in between the lines."

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