fleet foxes’ ‘helplessness blues’ talks existentialism, jesus & american individualism

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Thursday, May 19th, 2011

fleet foxes

fleet foxes’ ‘helplessness blues’ talks existentialism, jesus & american individualism

each week on america’s favorite karaoke show, american idol, an artist serves as mentor for the remaining contestants. it’s almost become cliché that the mentor will tell the young singers that they need to “feel” the music or “believe in” the song’s lyrics. yeah, we get it lady gaga, you’re passionately connected to the lyrics of poker face and that makes it oh so great…

the reality, though, is that in spite of the cliché status (and my sarcasm), it’s absolutely true. songs move from “sounding good” to “deeply connective” when the lyrics are performed with a sense of conviction.

in 2008, a little band from seattle called fleet foxes emerged on the scene with an incredibly beautiful self-titled album full of lush harmonies and pastoral folk. i was a fan, but not as over the moon as others. so when their follow-up, helplessness blues, released a couple weeks ago, i dutifully downloaded it as a casual fan, assuming i’d like it, but maybe not necessarily thrust it to the top of my ever-growing best of 2011 list.

a couple weeks in, my assumption has, for the most part, been confirmed. i certainly like it, but maybe not love it.

except for one track.

and that one track went from “it sounds good” to “these lyrics are so spot-on that it has now become anthemic”. it went from 0 to 60 in a matter of moments.

the song is the title track helplessness blues. so far, it’s easily the most popular track from the album, but, for me, beyond its inescapably great sound, it had such a meteoric rise to a track that i love once i actually listened to the lyrics. if you’re not familiar with the song, you can listen to it here and read along with the lyrics (just posting the first verse and chorus to get the idea):

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

in a recent interview, lead singer robin pecknold said that the primary songwriting inspiration spawned from an awareness that he was a part of a “self-involved generation” and that the lyrics were largely existential in nature.

the track helplessness blues is likely the most representational of this lyrical ethic.

i tend to see the world through a jesus lens and these lyrics struck me as the perfect summation of what it means to follow in the way of jesus. unbridled american individualism teaches us that we are forged as unique and special individuals who are free to pursue life as an island. while i certainly celebrate each person’s unique qualities and encourage the utmost diversity of thought and being, there’s something beautiful about choosing to be a part of something bigger, something beyond us. the reality is that in order to be a more perfect people and society, we need to, as robin pecknold suggests, become “a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond” us.

there’s simply some beautiful and jesus-like about seeing beyond ourselves and sacrificing what makes us unique in order to serve something greater. that “something beyond me” might be god. maybe it’s humanity. maybe it’s your neighborhood. but it’s something bigger, something beyond us.

and identifying that requires the most fundamental kind of self sacrifice.

for me, this song has become anthemic. it’s become something that simply sounded beautiful and it now sounds defining and inspiring and something so much deeper.

great music does something more than just sound good. it moves. it connects. it challenges. it inspires. and helplessness blues has done just that for me.

2 Comments

  1. My friend JT sent me that single when it first came out, saying it sounded like me, like “hippie church.” Of course, I love the whole album.

  2. Todd Erickson says:

    So, how much individuality should we be sacrificing? Giving up to that greater machine mostly seems to be cloning one’s self to a vision, rather than becoming part of a greater body.

    I’m just not seeing how doing this leads to anything but despair in the long run, at least with current conditions.

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