Helplessness Blues and the End of the World
The world was supposed to end on May 21, 2011. The day of the Rapture was upon us, and I was in a car with four other people on the way from Rochester, NY to Philadelphia, PA.
We were going to see Fleet Foxes on their Helplessness Blues tour at the Tower Theatre. It wasn’t planned that way; to see a show during Christ’s supposed second coming, but what better way to spend the end of all days than at a concert?
As we drove, the world really did look like it was ending. We encountered pockets of extreme wind, hail, and heavy rain. The soundtrack to our trip was a mix of Fleet Foxes, Starfucker, and Beach House, bands that distracted us from the terror outside the windows of our Honda CR-V. When we reached Philly that afternoon, the sky was sunny and bright, but there was a mass of foreboding clouds that were slowly encroaching upon us from the west. Traffic was heavy and people stood on the roads with signs that read, “The end is near!” and “Only the believers will rise! Non-believers shall burn in Hell!” There were even some on the highway with grocery carts filled with all of their worldly belongings. People really thought the Rapture was happening that night, and they seemed scared. But, there I was, in a car of 20-year-olds, blasting indie rock jams, prepping for one of our favorite band’s shows. But the music we were driving 340 miles to hear was quite fitting actually.
Fleet Foxes, an indie folk band from Seattle, WA, rose onto the music scene in 2008 with their EP Sun Giant, followed by their self-titled debut album. The band mastered melodies and harmonies that were familiar, but also unheard of—but whatever they were, they sounded amazing. The music was light, ethereal almost, and carefree. However their tone changed with their 2011 Helplessness Blues. While the band still played with harmonies, the music was darker, uncertain, and heavier. Where the music used to be blonde, now it was shaded to a deeper brunette. The songs had more abrupt chord sequences, like in “Sim Sala Bim,” “The Plains/Bitter Dancer,” “Battery Kinzie,” and “Grown Ocean.” But, even the song titles and the lyrics were different.
The chords and the angelic voice of Robin Pecknold, founder and principal songwriter, sometimes distract me from the lyrics. But on that day in Philadelphia, with those rapturous clouds slowly blowing toward us, I really listened to what Pecknold was saying. And it got me thinking.
The album opens with “Montezuma,” with Pecknold questioning his place in life: “Oh man what I used to be/Montezuma to Tripoli/ Oh man oh my oh me.” He wonders about the totality of his successes and whether or not they amount to anything at all. What if the world ended? What had I done? This car full of kids basically, some asleep, others staring out the window, and one driving, what had they done? Would we be in history books? Montezuma and Tripoli, once great cities, are now only imagined places to us, mentioned only briefly in Western Civilization classes. Will we be reduced to a line in a textbook? Something like, “Hipsters found road trips to be enlightening and freeing and enjoyed a type of music called ‘indie folk.’”
The fourth song, “Battery Kinzie,” begins with, “I woke up one morning/ All my fingers rotten/ I woke up a dying man without a chance,” and continues on in the chorus with, “Wide-eyed walker/ Do not wander/ Do not wander/ Through the dawn.” The walking dead was the first thing on my mind, especially with the potential of the end of the world threatening us.
Could this be our last day? Even the name of the album coincided with my dark thoughts: Helplessness Blues. Were we all defenseless against this Rapture? Was there nothing we could do? Robin Pecknold, please tell me!
What’s funny about this is that I’m sure Pecknold and the rest of Fleet Foxes weren’t thinking that their fans would be questioning their functions in the world on the day of the intended Rapture while listening to their album. If anything, that was a hypothetical situation they dreamed up while going through post-production.
Later that night, after the concert (which was amazing, as expected), we left the Tower Theatre, and looked around. One of my friends looked at his watch and said, “Well, it is after midnight. Everything seems to be in order.” We glanced around, and it was true: The dead had not risen; there were no cracks in the pavement leading to the fiery pits of Hell. Everything was fine. My friend then said, “Let’s get Wendy’s,” and my inner ponderings melted away into nothing, to be saved for another predicted end of all days.
Check out Fleet Foxes at http://fleetfoxes.com/