The Search for Meaning in Helplessness Blues

Despite all the big releases that have come out in the indie music world in these last couple months (Death Cab for Cutie, Bon Iver, etc.), I have to say that I am still happily stuck on Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues. The album finds the band maturing both as musicians and songwriters, but also reveals a deep, spiritual probing in the lyrics. In many ways, the focus of the album seems to be on asking questions rather than discovering answers. Even musically, the songs begin and end abruptly and often forego familiar song structures in favor of songs that change direction and emphasize exploration. 

On what is perhaps the quietest moment of the album, Peckinfold has something of an existential crisis looking toward the nighttime sky in the song “Blue Spotted Tail”: “Why in the night sky are the lights hung?/Why is this earth moving around the sun?/Floating in the vacuum with no purpose, not a one/Why in the night sky are the lights hung?” What I found in Peckinfold’s questioning in songs like this one was a deep spiritual longing for meaning in life and a willingness to stare those difficult questions straight in the face.

For much of the album, the band puts on the persona of the sixties counterculture. Whether its the nostalgic music video for “Grown Ocean” or the lyrical and musical references to sixties folk acts like Joni Mitchell and Simon & Garfunkel, the young band seems to have found inspiration from the generation that came before them. Full of lyrics referring to struggling to find your place in the world and leaving adolescence behind, the band is tackling some issues incredibly pertinent to their twenty-something following. In my repetitive listening to Helplessness Blues, I found a profound glimmer of the God-given desire to do something meaningful in life.

Nowhere do the Fleet Foxes express these sentiments more beautifully than in the title track of the album: “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/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”. Although Peckinfold might not be speaking directly about God or living out the will of God, this is an incredibly powerful expression of living out the Gospel and the will of God in our lives as Jesus followers and members of the body of Christ. In our culture of individualism, even as Christians we have sometimes viewed “being your own person” and having dreams and goals for your life as being vitally important. But we should remember that this kind of extreme individualism isn’t necessarily the picture that the New Testament paints of Christian life.

Instead, we often find that the Scriptures advise us to do things like consider others’ desires as more important than our own, live unified as the body of Christ, and seek out the will of God rather than the will of ourselves. Philippians 2: 1-4 says:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

In fact, realizing that we are only a “functioning cog in some great machinery” might not be such a bad place to start for us as Christians. Indeed if I could come to a more pressing awareness that I as an individual should not be the most important thing in my life, following Jesus might come a bit more naturally. If nothing else, these words from “Helplessness Blues” have reminded me that the radical Gospel of Jesus where “the last will be first and the first will be last” has very little wiggle room for the breed of individualism that we we’ve all grown up on.

Perhaps what continuously draws me back to the album is that I can really relate to the themes of these songs. Having just graduated from college and wondering what God would have of me next, I find myself often coming to many of the same realizations and questions that Peckinfold does (and judging from what I’ve heard from others, I’m not the only one). After all, how many of us haven’t felt a bit helpless in the view of the overwhelming world before us?

As the Fleet Foxes are maturing and growing out of their own wide-eyed view of the world, so is this entire generation. “Making a difference in the world” and being the “change you want to see” are such buzz phrases that they’ve almost become the definitive cliches of our generation. The Fleet Foxes have managed to express all those strong emotions and desires in a fresh and beautifully honest way. Helplessness Blues is one of those rare albums that captures the sentiment of a generation so uniquely that it is sure to not be forgotten down the road.

About Luke Larsen

Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, music lover, and indie game enthusiast hailing from the Great Northwest. His writing has been featured in publications such as Paste, RELEVANT, GameChurch, and Prefix. You can find him tweeting at @lalarsen11.

  • echo4H

    One quibble: his last name is Pecknold, not Peckinfold.

  • http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com Luke Larsen

    Good catch echo. Thanks!

  • Krystal Alison

    “I found a profound glimmer of the God-given desire to do something meaningful in life.” This line from your blog describes perfectly what I felt when reading the lyrics of “Helplessness Blues” for the first time. This song presses an urgency for purpose on one’s heart.

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