With few exceptions (including the pretty brutal review from Gavin Haines on NME, which should start a serious debate about what do we call music journalism) the second album of the Seattle indie folk band is receiving the universal acclaim from critics around the globe, certifying the privileged status the band has achieved.
In my opinion, after having the album on repeat for a long time (my enthusiasm for them has grown a lot since I saw them at Primavera Sound Festival), "Helplessness Blues", is a fair follow-up of their beloved predecessor. That's a reason to be happy, but also to raise a question mark. Let's go step by step.
On one hand, half of the album is simply gorgeous. Their craftsmanship talent cannot be more than overtly acclaimed in front of songs like opener "Montezuma", the humming "Battery Kinzie", the Arabic vibe of "Bedouin Dress", the medieval "Sim Sala Bim", the homonym epic of "Helplessness Blues" or the sublime waltsy, fingerpicking style of "Lorelai". Robin Pecknold's voice shimmers, the arrangements and melodies soar, and one has to wonder if critics like Haines are just haters (maybe he hates folk) or people with a serious problem on the ears.
But compared to their debut something is missing. Some tunes, like "Blue Spotted Tail", "Someone You'd Admire" or "Grown Ocean" pass unnoticed. And then we have the two "slashed" songs, "The Plains/Bitter Dancer" and "The Shrine/An Argument", which could be qualified as interesting folk experiments, but where the sections doesn't really fit together.
And having in mind these disparities on the interest/entity of the songs (just my opinion of course), some needed diversity is also lacking on the album to avoid that feeling of getting tiring towards the end of it. Their first album had a slightly different approach to Americana in each song, from the rootsiness of Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, to the pop vocal harmonies and cheerfulness of The Beach Boys. Instead, "Heplessness Blues" is dominated by a publicly recognized embrace of the sixties folk boom. And more importantly, is dominated entirely by Pecknold (we could say the same about the lyrics), who sometimes seems to be almost alone in the task. Yes, intimacy and self-restraint could be excellent choices, but I have the feeling the record misses some foot-stomping or more electric guitars (almost absent except on the experimental/instrumental sections of the aforementioned "slashed" songs), particularly in its final part.
Maybe my opinion of the album has to do more with the terrific impression they gave after seeing them live. On stage, their music was not only beautiful, it was genuinely alive. During half of "Helpnessness Blues" I had that mesmerizing, contagious sensation again. But it didn't last the whole album.