catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 20 :: 2011.11.11 — 2011.11.24


Nevermind your helplessness blues

Fleet Foxes’ “new” album, Helplessness Blues had no business coming out in the summer. As far as I’m concerned, Fleet Foxes write fall music, best appreciated during the months when the air feels as crisp as their harmonies and the days shorten up just enough to make us all feel like cuddling up with a bearded man in flannel to keep warm.

Those days have come here in Michigan, so I’m listening.

Had Helplessness Blues dropped in September, it would have not only landed in its proper season, it would have been birthed during the same month as its musical relative. September marks 20 years since Nirvana’s Nevermind hit shelves and changed the music world forever. While I’m not trying to say that Nirvana and Fleet Foxes are on the same plane in the music world, for this moment in time, Helplessness Blues has captured a bit of the emotion of many younger adults. This is what Nirvana was really all about — being a mouthpiece for a generation. Cobain wasn’t known for the beauty of his voice and Nirvana certainly never was compared to the Beach Boys when it comes to sound. In this way, the two bands come from different worlds. But as their music captures and declares the common desire of a generation, they’re musical cousins.

Nevermind is about frustration with so many of the systems that are in place in our world. Nirvana’s music clangs with the angst of people who are not yet what they will be, not yet sure what they will become, and not excited by the options their world seems to provide. The grunge scene — for which Cobain and Co. quickly became the poster children — is the classic countercultural movement. It existed because so many young people didn’t trust the institutions of our society to provide a platform for individuality, creativity and freedom. The “Man” was getting Nirvana down and they were pissed.

Now, twenty years later, one of the biggest albums of the year, also sung by dudes who wear flannel, has this to say:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like 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

Excuse me? A “functioning cog?” Can you imagine Cobain singing that?

But we find similarity as well. The next line of the song is, “But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be / I’ll get back to you someday soon, you will see.”  The song “Helplessness Blues” continues, vocalizing a desire for a future they can understand and believe in, but without any idea about where that will come from.

And so flannel is not the only thing these generational mouthpieces have in common. Here, two decades later, is the same story being told again with guitars and drums. The story says simply this: It’s hard to be in a place where becoming is expected when you don’t know what to become. It’s the story of an emerging adult. The same concerns and distrusts seem to haunt the dark forests of becoming that the Fleet Foxes are walking through many years after Nirvana did. And while some older adults will look at this time of life and the generation that currently navigates it and pine for the freedom, autonomy and relative lack of responsibility they have, it must be noted that this time of searching for identity is a full-time job. It’s exhausting and exhilarating, demanding and delightful.

We all know how Curt Cobain’s life ended. His story was his end. The emotion of Nirvana’s sound and its lack of resolution may well have pointed to that day. This again is where the bands are different though. Fleet Foxes articulate the uneasiness of their becoming, their lack of assurance about where it will take them, and their suspicions of those in power while also having hope. Fleet Foxes end the song “Helplessness Blues” with a dream of discovering a place with someone worth finding, and doing things worth doing.

Might a dream for the future be the only thing that separates life from death and joy from despair?

Being twenty-something is, in certain ways, the same as it has always been. What it means to become an adult has not changed — answering questions of identity, belonging and mission continue to define this process. But now more than ever, young adults set sail on the sea of becoming while still searching for a map. And that, quite frankly, is horrifying. When you consider our economic climate, the increased polarization of religious and political groups, the decline of commonly held meta-narratives, the pressures of a consumerist lifestyle (just to name a few), we should all be applauding those emerging adults we know who, despite the chaos raging around them, have not crashed their ships along the rocks of our current age.

It may just be that what each one of them needs to keep the ship afloat is a dream, a vision for the future that is filled with the hope that they can find a place and work worth doing alongside others worth loving.

It’s all you ever wanted, isn’t it? And, if you haven’t found it, isn’t that what you’re looking for? 

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