You ever cross-dress in the evenings? My wife is wearing my dress shirt and jeans and I’m wearing her run-up hose and an old rock t-shirt. God knows which one of us came up with this game. We’re on the couch and watching some show neither of us is that into, while I write and she texts her brother, worlds away in Athens, Greece. She looks up at the little CRT TV and mutters about how Patrick Stewart makes the overwrought “deep” ramblings of the scriptwriter into real literature, not knowing that he’s quoting Erik Satie, the composer. I ask her if Shakespeare is literature when it’s on the page.
None of that is strictly relevant, and perhaps you didn’t need that intimate (and exhibitionist) a look at my married life, but bear with me, I’m going to make it connect.
In the 80’s adaptation of Dune (I think I’ve referenced it before), there’s this scene (with vaguely incestuous undertones, because neither of the actors can act) where the improbably young father tells his son, the main character, that “without new experiences, something inside us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.”
This is a theme that I’ve seen several times: change or stagnate. He not busy being born is busy dying. Now, if you’re a man who’s never put on tights, you probably haven’t learned this specific object lesson in the female experience: tights are kind of stupid. They’re fragile, sweaty and uncomfortable to wear for long periods. It’s pretty clear why they didn’t stay menswear for very long in the West. Now, tights are largely out of style even for women, but women’s clothes are often like tights in the following ways: they always seem a little flimsier and a little less practical, clothing not to wear but to be seen wearing. Compare the fabric of men’s and women’s suits! I’m not up on feminist theory, not enough to read anything really deep into that, and I’ve certainly never been female, so I probably don’t know anything about the female experience, but it makes you think, doesn’t it? Why does one half of our species feel the need to dress that way? What combination of pressures, preferences and trends led to this situation? Is it easier being a man? Or can anyone know without living two whole lifetimes? Without new experiences, you don’t ask yourself these questions. Intellectually, you stagnate.
Yeah, I don’t get stoned very often, but when I do the results are always pretty interesting. I’m sorry if this one is all over the place.
Without new experiences, a band can stagnate too. Blitzen Trapper did not move on from their success. You can only go so far on so much experience. Reinvention is the answer, and if you don’t do it, you’ll end up retreading the same material over and over again. It happens to the best bands: it’s one of the factors that ruined Pink Floyd. And Blitzen Trapper, well, it’s the only thing that explains the post-Furr albums.
“Yes, dear,” I say to my wife, who has just looked over at my screen, “I am still on about that band.”
“The one we saw in Atlanta?”
“Was that Atlanta?”
“Yes, we ate at the Bluebird.”
Disc 2 of Destroyer, which I started reviewing last time, has the worst parts and some of the best parts of the album. It opens with what is likely to be a very polarizing track: “Dragon’s Song.” Hell, that title is liable to be polarizing. You know I like sci-fi and fantasy, but I know that not everyone does. So I’m pretty critical of fantasy-type songs that have only niche appeal, even if I like to listen to them.
It’s an exemplary Blitzen Trapper song, on the musical level, alternating light and heavy, acoustic and electric in a way that is one of the band’s strengths. It reminds me of a deep cut from a late Led Zeppelin album, I think.
Lyrically, it’s up to the standard of the album, which is to say A) it’s very weird, B) it’s unlikely to appeal to a mass audience and C) has some pretty solid lines. “You are half my heart set apart/to the end of the age” is one of my favorite BT lines. Sci-fi, fantasy and Biblical imagery are freely interchanged, and it’ll alienate some people. However, on a personal note, it does remind me of a dream I once had, so I like it. Objectively, I have to give it a 6.5/10.
“The Tree” may be the best song on the album. Not my favorite, since that’s probably the title track, but the best when considered on an aesthetic level. It’s an acoustic number, reminiscent of “Lady on the Water” and maybe Furr on an instrumental level. It’s one of the only songs on the album where the band really simplify their sound, and it’s a very strong track for it. Alela Diane sings backup, which is nice, because Eric’s voice is again a little harsh and dry and needs something to set it off, sweet vermouth for his whiskey and cocktail bitters.*
It has another one of Eric’s lilting melodies, lyrics about climbing a world tree that probably represents spiritual growth. I’ve compared it to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but actually, I think it’s rather more influenced by Ripple by the Grateful Dead. In fact, there are a couple of things that seem inspired by the “American Beauty” album on Destroyer. Remember “The Man who Would Speak True?” Anyways, the line “you must walk behind if you’re to lead,” can’t help but remind me of “you who choose to lee-ead must follow” in Ripple, and the final, wordless verse with its “la la la’s” seems a lot like the final verse of Ripple with its “da da da’s.”
But good ingredients make for a good cake, and looking for influences in the best artists is, to borrow my old mentor’s turn of phrase, like looking for water in a sponge. It’s the most solid song on the album, speaking critically. 8.5/10.
“Evening Star” is a look at the opposite pole of Blitzen Trapper, the side that’s grounded in reality. It’s a country song about a drugged-out party girl who’s reaching the end of her rope and wishes she could just be transported back in time to when she had love.
Now, “The Tree” and “Evening Star” are two of the last moments of real, shining originality in the BT catalogue. There are good songs after this, but no great ones, I think. What I think happened here is that, somewhere in the monotony of touring and recording, they ran out of life experiences to write new material about. They couldn’t write their great lyrics with mystical undertones because they just didn’t feel that mystical about life anymore. So they took the thing that felt most authentic to write in their repertoire and started writing it over and over. In a way, “Evening Star” is the prototype for all of the next album, for better or for worse.
Is it any good? Eh. 7/10. It’s better than most of the songs on the first side, to be honest.
And so the album starts going downhill. I can’t think of anything to say about “Lover Leave Me Drowning.” I don’t know what’s going on here and musically it does little for me. It’s like an AI tried to write a Blitzen Trapper song. 5/10
“The Tailor…” oddly, I imagine Andy Robinson narrating this song. My gen-X Trekkies know where it’s at. It’s an odd little narrative about a tailor who sews life into existence wherever he goes, a godlike little man, apparently immortal and certainly uncanny. The music… ah, well, I find the lilting melody to be a little repetitive after “The Tree” and some of the other songs on the album. Eric’s voice sounds tired, and I’m not sure if he knows what the point of this exercise is either. Hard pass. 5/10.
Sadie is an exercise in writing the most mundane music possible. As a country song it does vaguely presage the next album, “American Goldwing,” but it has none of the substance or musical texturing of that album. It just seems like a man whining about a domestic quarrel, with no pathos. Considering that there’s already a song on this album based on the famous folk tune “Sadie” in the form of “The Man who Would Speak True,” it’s also a waste of a good name. 5/10.
Overall, I don’t like this half of the album. I feel like this is another “Soundtrack to the Movie More” situation.
So here we are:
High Point: “The Tree”
Low Point: Sadie
Average score for this half: 7.4/10
Points added for being the last hurrah of a great era: +1
Overall score for this half: 8.4/10
Overall score for the whole album: 7.9/10