Like a field of wildflowers sprawling as far as the eye can see, Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues is almost too much to take in.
Draped in ravishing, multipart harmonies and steeped in sensitive folk balladry, this hotly anticipated sophomore effort builds upon its predecessor's promise, while ever so gently pushing the Seattle-based baroque-pop sextet in new directions.
But it's not all bounteous beauty, verdant fields and delicate plucking of strings. Frontman Robin Pecknold is troubled, which introduces an arresting undercurrent of doubt to these tunes. He's burdened by expectation, unsure of his next step and feeling the weight of maturity settle upon his shoulders: "So now I am older than my mother and father/When they had their daughter/Now what does that say about me," he sings on album opener Montezuma.
Has he forsaken an opportunity for happiness and riches in order to pursue a solely creative existence?
The theme of finding a life's direction and grasping for meaning drifts to the surface again and again throughout Helplessness Blues.
This uncertainty is made plain in Someone You'd Admire: "One of them wants only to be someone you'd admire/One would as soon just throw you on the fire/After all is said and all is done/God knows which of them I'll become."
Just as pearls require agitation to achieve a state of graceful elegance, so, too, are the songs on Blues glittering treasures to behold. Fleet Foxes made a name for itself with its Appalachian-inspired, English folk-inflected close harmonies on its self-titled 2008 debut, and they're back with an alluring vengeance here, refined and somehow more textured.
Dive into the album at any point, and you'll emerge with a new favorite: Battery Kinzie is built for lazy afternoons; a pair of lengthy tracks (The Plains/Bitter Dancer; The Shrine/An Argument) hint at boundary-pushing ambition; and the kinetic guitar roundelay closing Sim Sala Bim feels snatched from a Moroccan marketplace -- or maybe a Crosby, Stills & Nash B-side.
The compelling nature of Blues' music guarantees one thing, however -- you'll spend hours with this masterful work, absorbing its neuroses and nuances. If nothing else, Pecknold and his collaborators have soundly defeated that which has dogged them, delivering one of the year's finest records in the process.
Fleet Foxes plays Dallas' Palladium Ballroom Wednesday.