I never finished my first listen of Helplessness Blues. Sure, I found the beginning and middle parts pleasant enough but near the tail end of the record a cacophonous, heinous solo not unlike a sax getting stabbed to death prompted me to immediately turn it off and walk away laughing. What a horrible song! What were they thinking? Never listening to this thing again, that’s for sure.
Helplessness Blues has remained my all time favorite record for about four years now. Besides being an emotional and spiritual rock for me during my transition to college it was also the main actor in transforming how I view music as an art form. So how did this happen exactly? How does one get from not even being able to finish a full listen to holding it in such high regard?
To get a sense of how this happened I need to start from the beginning. In 2011 I had freshly graduated from high school and was keen to enjoy what would be my last summer at home before moving to Philadelphia for the next five years to study software engineering at Drexel University. It was difficult to work through the feelings of fear and doubt I had at the time, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle with trusty Coldplay at my side.
Ah, Coldplay, just the band name itself drums up fond memories of long drives to and from high school theater and swim team practices. I had discovered Coldplay in an almost miraculous moment at a terribly awkward dance party for teens on a family cruise. At the event I was where any sexually confused early high school boy would be: sitting off to the side obsessively checking his phone wishing for a dream scenario to fall on his lap like it did in the movies. That’s when I heard “Lovers in Japan” for the first time and it blew my young mind. Growing up, I was fed a strict musical diet of oldies, Country, Jimmy Buffett, and a splattering of Fleetwood Mac, but nothing I had heard my entire life up to that point sounded as cascadingly joyous and beautiful as that song did. Even still it makes my heart light hearing the old, familiar whirlwind of keys and blaring synths. You see, “Lovers in Japan” was an essential stepping stone for me along the path leading to Helplessness Blues. Because of that song I began to crave for music like it, anything to get that “high” again. When I arrived home I immediately poured over this wondrous and strange band “Coldplay”’s discography, buying any songs that sounded even remotely like “Lovers in Japan” from their thirty second previews in iTunes. I had that haphazardly assembled “Purchased” playlist on repeat for the better part of my high school career.
As graduation loomed ever nearer I began to finally grow a bit more curious. Maybe, just maybe, there were other bands out there like Coldplay for me to discover, but who? For a while I tried doing “Similar Video” hopping on Youtube with poor results (just more Coldplay majority of the time) and continued this into Freshman year of college until finally I stumbled across my answer. I was frequenting /r/coldplay at the time (a community of coldplay fans on reddit.com) and happened across a post from someone in a similar position as mine asking the small community of other “Coldplayers” what other bands they listened to. There, posted by /u/coldplaying, was a list of suggested bands. One of the names listed caught my attention, “Fleet Foxes”, so I clicked on the provided link. That’s when I heard “Montezuma”, Helplessness Blues opening track, for the first time.
It had been three years since I had first heard “Lovers in Japan” and immediately I knew I was having an experience of the same caliber. The ambient, lush guitars and angelic harmonies painted a sonical mood not often explored by Coldplay. I knew I had to check out what else this band had to offer. To audit the band’s other songs like I had with Coldplay I snagged a copy of Helplessness Blues from my local library along with Radiohead’s In Rainbows (which also kept popping up as a suggestion on the forums which I look forward to covering another time) and 30 Seconds To Mars’s This is War (which I regretfully will also be covering another time). Finally, I could sit down and see what other songs made by these “Fleet Foxes” might sound like “Montezuma”. That’s when I cut my first listen short due to the dying saxophone solo and disregarded the band and “Montezuma” as a fluke.
There it remained sitting in my iTunes library for the next few months until I stumbled across something curious while searching for the lyrics to “Montezuma” and “Grown Ocean” (the album’s closer, which I had in the meantime discovered with the related videos section on YouTube) on songmeanings.com. There a fan left a comment on “Grown Ocean”’s lyrics that changed the way I perceive music and ultimately prompted me to give Helplessness Blues the crucial second listen. He had left a comment about how “Grown Ocean” continued a story, a character, from the previous songs, therefore making the songs in the album connected. The bulb lit, it all made sense now. The album was an ordered, coherent whole, not just a thoughtless collection of individual, “hit” pandering songs an artist threw together like my terrible iTunes playlists. Songs can be individual threads used to weave together a grand sonical tapestry of the mind, the whole stronger than any of their parts. All my life I had viewed music as the occasional good song that would get up in front of you for a quick, pitiful lap dance and leave you with an empty feeling afterwards known all too well in a world of zero calorie drinks, cheap thrills, and instant gratification. His comment shown forth like a gloriously illuminated lighthouse, a promise there could be something more not just in this album but in all music. With his comment in hand I immediately dove into my dusty, lonesome digital copy of Helplessness Blues, now with eyes opened to a new world of possibilities, and listened to it for what would truly be the first time.
Enter the Prodigal Son
Over the course of the album we pass by what seems like a plethora of unidentified different characters for each song until we are formally introduced to a son in Bitter Dancer. This character, mirroring the one from the famous biblical story in many respects, suddenly puts the album in context as we realize the majority of the various seemingly unique characters thus far are actually the same, the prodigal son from Bitter Dancer.
To explain, let’s look at “Montezuma”; we see a young man grimly realizing his current failures in life, mainly a lost love and squandered wealth. Then in “Bedouin Dress”, we see what we thought was another young man wistfully (and perhaps sheepishly) reflecting on their wasted, privileged, and spoiled childhood in a state of mind they refer to as Innisfree. This young man desperately wishes to return and have a do-over to “soon return” everything he had taken and to gaze upon his love again for the first time. Then again in “Battery Kinzie” we see what we thought was again another young adult realizing because of his ambivalent, unappreciative treatment of his now ex lover he has squandered his prime and attempts to patch things up only to realize she’s already moved on with another. Finally, in “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”, we see a prodigal son being scolded by his father that he’s done nothing of value his whole life despite the great privilege granted to him, ultimately deciding to leave and make it on his own because of it. It becomes clear now that these were not individuals at all but the same son finally identified in “Bitter Dancer” and we’re witnessing his life literally falling apart around him. He’s lost his “Innisfree” mentioned in “Bedouin Dress”, his true love in “Battery Kinzie”, and now his father’s acceptance and wealth in “Bitter Dancer”. The prodigal son we’ve grown to empathize with up to this point is now out to make it on his own which leads us into the self-titled track at the halfway point of the album, Helplessness Blues.
Here we see the son surprisingly deciding to not let all these life shattering events get him down, no, “what good is it to sing helplessness blues?” after all? He’ll strive out there and make a new Innisfree for himself! He thinks to himself “Why should I wait for anyone else?” and dreams of an orchard (a pure representation of an opportunity to work hard) where he can work to prove his own self worth. Through it all he holds the belief that his love will “keep me on the shelf” and return to his arms when he’s victorious. For the rest of the album we follow his emotional journey as he strives to achieve this dream.
Through the glimmering, bubbling rivers in the instrumental “The Cascades” we realize we’re listening to a traditional musical-style interlude to indicate time passing. It’s been a considerable while since the son lost his fortune and left to create his own Innisfree. Through this and “Lorelai” there’s still a soundscape of optimism and hopefulness, but particularly in “Lorelai” and “Someone You’d Admire” we begin to see that facade the son put on through the whole album begin to crumble. In “Lorelai” the son’s lyrical speech begins to take up hints of cynicism towards the way his lover left him (He “was old news to you”, just “old news”), while in “Someone You’d Admire” we see the son for the first time having difficulties actually following through on his vow to become an hard working, enlightened man in Helplessness Blues. We begin to realize that the part of him we have seen that just “wants only to be someone you’d admire” has been fighting a new dark side we are only just beginning to see that “would as soon just throw you on the fire”.
At this point, the train is at full steam towards a sharp turn and there’s no going back. The listeners all know where this sad tale is going. The shimmering hopefulness and the last sliver of innocence displayed by the son through the album even in the mist of a spoiled past, revoked fortune, and lost love is about to fall apart. The son as we know him is going to vanish.
This is it, “The Shrine / An Argument”, the two part movement that turns away almost everyone I’ve shared the record with as it did me in my initial listen. It’s easy to be caught off guard by it if careful attention had not been paid to the underlying emotional narrative up to this point. Throughout the entire album—though it’s been filled with melancholy and hardship—it’s still remained lighthearted and beautiful. Then enters “The Shrine / An Argument” like a splash of icy cold water; suddenly we’re met with an abrasive sonic tone sung to us by someone that is clearly not well and dangerous to himself and those around him. The idealistic son we’ve followed this entire time is crashing; he’s stealing money from wishing fountains (it should be noted this could also be seen metaphorically as leaching off the dreams of still innocent children now that his own dream has died), harassing and stealing from his old lover, and other self destructive acts. He’s spiraling out of control and things couldn’t get any worse.
A bone chilling, eerie calm seeps into the song, making us even more fearful and uncomfortable than the earlier madness. It’s quiet and soft but something’s horribly, terribly wrong. The son calmly claims the “green apples hanging from my tree” belong “only to me”. The dream he tried so hard to achieve to make his father proud, to rid himself of borrowers guilt, and most importantly to win back his lost lover is revoked. It was and is all only for him now, nobody else matters. With this selfish regression complete (and now without innocence to use as a crutch), he lays down on the beach as the tide comes in and attempts drowning himself as the ear splitting saxophone solo you’ve heard so much about begins. Everything’s come to this, ambivalent suicide and the most ugly, vial, heinous sounds you could ever possibly imagine. You may not even notice the instruments fading out one by one until you’re left with a sole violin crying out it’s final note.
What’s this? Just a guitar and a sole vocalist wondering why the stars are in the sky? What the hell happened!? You can’t just switch back to music like this after what we have just been through and heard! What the hell happened?
In “Blue Spotted Tail” time has clearly passed again and it seems that the son we thought we lost has miraculously survived. Maybe he couldn’t follow through with it in the end after all? Or maybe he really did try but by some miracle was unsuccessful? Or maybe someone intervened right before it was too late? We can’t know, we aren’t given an answer, but regardless of the circumstances involving the failed suicide attempt he’s alive.
His mental state is doing much better than when we last saw him. Not great—or even good—but better. He’s lost all sense of purpose and doesn’t know what to do anymore. In “The Shrine / An Argument” he was fueled by bitter, destructive selfishness, but now he’s just exhausted and above all directionless. What’s the point in carrying on, really? He’s lost what little family he had, most likely lost the love of his life forever, and ultimately failed at “making it” on his own.
To top it all off he realizes now he can never return to Innisfree again. He’s lost the blissful, innocent ignorance he had when he was growing up comfortably and knows it will never come back. There’s no point in trying anymore.
Unbridled musical bliss bursts forth throwing us off our feet. After such a quiet, subdued song (especially in he face of the lush precedent set by all the previous songs on the album) “Grown Ocean” thunders in like a trumpeting, glorious wake up call to the soul. At once all the worries we held from the previous couple songs melt away. It’s remarkable, we don’t even need to hear what the son has to say in the album’s final song to know what he feels, the sheer happiness is literally bursting at the seams through the music, as if it’s barely able to contain it. Clearly the son has discovered a new purpose in life, but what could it be?
The answer to that question reveals itself differently depending on the listener. One would perhaps say it’s the hope of being a father someday, however small the chance irrelevant. The wealth and fame he so desperately sought after to make it on his own (“someday I’ll be like the man on the screen”) was all wrong, it means nothing. Children “kept like jewelry, kept with devotion” are the only wealth in life worth treasuring and pursuing. Another might say instead that the son has achieved peace of mind through learning patience. He accepts the only way to find the answers he longs for is to “remove my demands for now” and calmly await his slow moving dream as he lives his life. Should the dream end up never coming that’s fine, Life is for Living and “I’ll have so much to tell you about it” should he die before it manifests. It’s the journey, not the destination, and he vows to be there for every step.
Perhaps it’s both these values together the son has awoken to. He doesn’t require some grand, elaborate plan anymore for a reason to live, as he proclaims he’ll be “so happy just to have spoken” as the story draws to a close. Throughout all the turmoil the son has come through better for it. Grown, like the ocean.
As the last of the music drops away we are left with just a sparse vocal harmony whispering these final words:
Wide eyed walker
Don’t betray me
I will wake one day, don’t delay me
Wide eyed leaver
Despite everything he’s learned, there’s still the fear that he’ll never reconcile with his love (and even if he does that she might leave him again). Our character has grown, surely, but that won’t suddenly make life easy. Life will still be full of hardship and despair, but that doesn’t make it worth throwing away. It’s part of the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life and he resolves to be there for every moment of it.
And so ends Helplessness Blues. Perhaps when you listen you’ll disagree with my interpretation, and that’s absolutely fine. Maybe you’ll see a more intangible, emotional narrative presented by a multitude of characters, or maybe instead you’ll see a collection of songs that broadly deal with determining your purpose in life and coming of age, or you may even see a different narrative at work. Regardless of what you personally take away from the experience, it is no doubt one worth taking in one sitting while resting at a quiet place with a cup of tea and lyrics in hand. I know I will; there’s spiritual comfort in knowing as the birthdays continue to rush by I can always drop a needle and hear someone from far away crying:
So now I am older
Than my mother and father
When they had their daughter
Now what does that say about me?
- The album’s brimming with sonic imagery. See if you can hear the train in “Sim Sala Bim” slowly beginning its roll and eventually reaching breakneck speed during the instrumental second half. Also keep an ear out for the bubbling, crystal clear waters in “The Cascades” and the haunting moors in the first half of “The Plains / Bitter Dancer”.
- As the name suggestions, the chaotic saxophone in “The Shrine / An Argument” sounds like it could be imitating a bitter argument between two people, adding yet another layer of sonic imagery to the record.
- The album makes frequent callbacks to the singer’s personal “Innisfree” and the orchard he vows he’d tend there. See if you can pick up on all the times this underlying dream reappears throughout the record.