Monday, December 26, 2011

Album of the Year: "Helplessness Blues" and Parenthood

Although I have always been open to parenthood, for the majority of my adult life I have experienced pretty significant anxiety about the reality of being a parent.  For the past couple of years, however, undoubtedly influenced by my impending 40th birthday, I increasingly felt the desire to don that mantle.  So, when, a little over a year ago, in the parking lot of a Starbucks, my wife handed me a container of Sunny Bears with “For new Dads only” scrawled across the top in Sharpie marker, I found that there was actually very little fear.  There was, I think, the nervousness that often comes with the unknown, but overall, accepting that container of candies felt quite natural.

Within a few months, my wife and I were sharing the seemingly endless succession of awkward moments that arise in birthing classes. Although these classes are meant to prepare new parents for what is to come, they do not do much to relieve apprehensions. After several hours of video footage that very directly addressed the realities of natural child birth, the tension of the class was palpable. As usual, my mind often drifted into song as a coping mechanism, and repeatedly, it was these lyrics that came up: 

So now I am older,
Than my mother and father,
When they had their daughter,
Now what does that say about me?

Oh how could I dream of,
Such a selfless and true love?
Could I wash my hands of
Just looking out for me?

Oh man what I used to be
Oh man oh my oh me

This is the opening lines to my album of the year, the Fleet FoxesHelplessness Blues. The track, Montezuma, is a rumination on a lonely life as it ponders its end.

The song asks questions that strongly resonated with me. My parents were a little over half my current age when I came into their lives, and I was old enough to clearly remember when my father turned 40.  My daughter will never know how I was in my 20s and 30s.  This divergence from my parent's path was generated in a very egocentric worldview that, up until about three years ago, was so deeply embedded in my everyday existence that it was impossible for me to see.  In fact, if you knew me during or before that time, I probably owe you an apology for some reason or another whether you know it or not.  I was, in short, not the best version of me.  If not for making some serious life changes, I would most likely still be in that place, and I probably would not be looking forward to fatherhood with the same kind of joyful anticipation that I enjoyed earlier this year.

Although Montezuma as a whole does not directly map onto my experience, the song’s overall message is open-ended enough to shed light on an introspective dialogue that was familiar to me this year.  Throughout Helplessness Blues, lead songsmith Robin Pecknold pens lyrics that are perhaps enlightened, but not enlightened in the transcendental sense. Instead, they examine a mythical realism grounded in the everyday, and are crafted to ask more questions than suggest answers.  As a result, the album's haunting qualities have a benevolent overtone, as if the spirits brought wisdom, comfort and insight rather than fear and distress.

Despite all of the competition, Helplessness Blues ended up being my album of the year, not just because it is full of amazing songs and exquisite musicianship (although it is), but because many of those songs opened up powerful moments of reflection like this one. In 2011, this sort of self-examination was both humbling and gratifying. I am very thankful for the birth of my daughter, and am grateful that I am in a place where I can appreciate the mindblowing reality of her existence.

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