If it's fair to say Fleet Foxes' debut album was unexpected, then we might also observe that this one is highly anticipated. However, their folk-pop sound was so distinctive there could be suspicions that any new album might just be more of the same (and that might be a let-down) or announce "Hope you like our new direction" (which could be interesting but highly unlikely).
Helplessness Blues manages that rare feat of delivering a bit of both.
Their acoustic-driven folksy sound remains intact but the references are now broader with the close harmony of the Beach Boys more to the fore in some places (notably the driving drum sound behind Battery Kinzie and the slow developing, studio-enhanced The Plains/Bitter Dancer with its overlaying of vocal lines) as are reference points like America and other close harmony country-folk bands of the Seventies.
Pecknold has been candid about his other reference points: Paul Simon (the tense title track with its big strummed guitars and Simon and Garfunkel-like poetic aspirations) and soundtracks (The Cascade with its hints of Ennio Morricone melodrama might have come from a romantic passage in a Sergio Leone western).
But interestingly he wrote many of these songs while opening for Joanna Newsom as a solo performer and you can imagine Sim Sala Bim and Someone You'd Admire here might be one of those, more solo turns than band tracks.
The result is that when all these tracks - quasi-choral songs, solo pieces, cinematically evocative songs - are mixed in with something like the ambitious eight-minute, increasingly folkadelic sweep of The Shrine/An Argument and the eerily lonely Blue Spotted Tail you have an album which stretches beyond that mighty impressive debut.
And the fact that two pieces here are composites (i.e. four separate songs in total) shows just how Fleet Foxes are starting to think laterally about their material.
This diverse but coherent album goes out with the almost heroic Grown Ocean, pulling together the themes of isolation and contentment, questioning of the cosmos and quiet reflection.
So not more of the same, nor a new direction, but an album which pushes out the borders of its predecessor to find confident new ground.
Verdict: If someone put a maypole in Brian Wilson's piano sandpit, this is how it would sound ...
- TimeOut / elsewhere.co.nz