Friday, May 20, 2011

Song of the Week: Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"

And we're back!

First, thanks for all of your emails last week.  When I asked for your suggestions for the blog, you certainly responded.  All of the feedback was appreciated, and many of your suggestions overlapped.  A few themes I noticed:

--You like the Another Cup of Coffee series
--You like Mad Men (not sure what this has to do with the Blog, but sure, I appreciate it)
--You like it when I rant about something
--You like emailing me instead of commenting in the comments section
--You'd like me to "suck it"
--You like Song of the Week

Who'm I to argue?  Let's get right to it...

Song of the Week: Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"

I have no clue how much anyone knows about Fleet Foxes.  An extremely long time ago (like 1982, man!), there were the Pop Bands Everyone Knew (say, Kiss), and the Bands You Knew If You Were Paying Attention (say, R.E.M.).  Through the 80's, 90's, and even part of the 00's, there was a delineation between artists the general public had heard of, and artists the "real music fans" had heard of.  Loosely, "big" bands vs. "small" bands.  The people that received music vs. the people who actively sought it out.  Top 40 radio vs. college radio.  Rolling Stone vs. a local fanzine.  Etc.

Twenty years ago, Fleet Foxes might've been in the latter camp.  Their philosophical lyrics, folk influences, and organic production would've made them a favorite of college radio, indie publications, and the general "small band" set.  And today, they surely are darlings of niche radio stations and indie blogs.  But they're also signed to a major label subsidiary, they've played SNL, their first single has 4 million YouTube views.  This winter, Cake topped Billboard's charts by selling 40,000 records in a week, the lowest number ever for a #1 rock album; Fleet Foxes have gone gold in North America and the UK.  They're technically big (relative to 2011), but most of my friends can't name one of their songs.  It's the Age of the Small Big Band, and Fleet Foxes might be its posterboys.  

So, I have no feel for how much anyone knows this band, or really any band I talk about.  I'm constantly having conversations where people ask, "what are you listening to?"  And if I say "have you heard Fleet Foxes," I get one of two reactions with NOTHING in between:
1) Everyone at the table immediately groans, rolls their eyes, and says that not only do they know Fleet Foxes, they were "over" them by 2008, man.  OR...
2) Everyone at the table looks at me like I grew a second head and says, "is that Roald Dahl?"

Maybe you're in the first camp, maybe you're in the second.  Maybe you're the first person I know who occupies some heavenly middle ground.  Either way, here's a quick intro/trip down memory lane:
1) Think Crosby, Stills, and Nash meets Pacific Northwest meets Gen Y optimism meets Jeff Buckley meets beards.
2) This.
3) And this.

Anyway, this month they released their second full album, Helplessness Blues.  I've been listening to it a lot, mostly the title track

I really like this song for a hundred reasons (#1-38 are some version of "it's fucking gorgeous"), but I'll write about the two I find most interesting:

1) The Quarter Life Question.  People think of my generation as a still-emerging class of tweens, adolescents, and nascent college co-eds.  We're not.  The generation roughly defined as the "Millennials," "Gen Y" or, as I call them, "people I hang out with who aren't my brother," was born in the 1980's.  Which means pretty much all of us are somewhere between "post-grad" and "nearing thirty."  In other words, we're no longer tweens; we're twentysomethings.  We've talked about "The Future" for a long time.  We've considered "what I'll do when I grow up" for even longer.  Well, it's kind of here, right?  We're technically adults, aren't we?  And, whether we mean to or not, we're answering some of these questions, we're making some of these decisions, and we're shaping that future.  

Those questions can be heady.  They can be even headier if you're unsure about your answer.  They can be even headier if you've made an answer and realize, a year or two later, that it was the wrong answer.  "Helplessness Blues" is one of the only songs I've heard (by a popular artist in recent years) tackle this explicitly.  In fact, the whole album seems at least tangentially to be about a Quarter Life Crisis.  And, near as I can tell, it's one of the first from a pop band of this generation.  Congrats, everyone--we're out of the mall!

2) The Anti-Millennial Answer.  If the countless articles about Gen Y have told us anything, we're (in no particular order):
1) ambitious, but lazy
2) self-absorbed
3) entrepreneurial
4) dependent on our parents
5) entitled
6) innately tech-savvy
7) blessed with perfect smiles (because of braces, you see)

Now, listen to this.  

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique...
And now after some thinking, I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me...

The only thing more antithetical to the Gen Y stereotype than being a "functioning cog in some great machinery" is wanting to be one.  Though the song is surely about one man's existential crisis, it's an assault on the perception of who we are and what we value.  And I'll be honest: I don't know who we are or what we value.  Neither does the song ("and I don't, I don't know what that will be...").  That's kind of the point. 

Like everyone else, I've read that recycled Newsweek article every year since I was sixteen.  And--maybe like everyone else--I've been at odds with my peers for a long time.  We are self-absorbed.  We can act entitled.  We could stand to do more walking and less talking.  And we're frequently awful, solipsistic, distracted company.  Hell, I'm public enemy #1: an independent musician blogging in a coffee shop.  I truly believe our heart is in the right place, but I worry about our head.

That's why "Helplessness Blues" is such a breath of fresh air; it's nice to hear a counterargument.  It's good to hear a statement of selflessness in action instead of in theory.  It's nice to hear confusion expressed as a fact of adulthood, not another feeling on a diary's page.  A Gen Y male's fantasy life might involve a non-nuclear family, independent wealth gleaned through entrepreneurial and technological savvy, and general world-beating by creating your own little world.  This song ends with an alternate fantasy of the "good life": he could work an orchard "til he's sore" and she could wait tables.  Living simply, and honestly, and in service of something.  It sounds like my grandparents' generation rather than mine.  It sounds nice.  It sounds new, but old.  It sounds great.


Michael said...

sounds like Buffalo

Chris Milam said...

Ha! True that.

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