Though the last two Blitzen Trapper albums have garnered attention as collections, for me, the band’s value is based on its title tracks, “Wild Mountain Nation” and “Furr”, two of the finest singles of the past decade and both completely different in tempo and instrumentation. Where one recalls 70’s southern rock, the other evoked Dylan-esque folk to weave a simple but effective narrative. “Destroyer Of The Void”, Blitzen Trapper’s newest title track, is also memorable, but more for the WTF moment you have when you initially listen. Blitzen Trapper have gone Queen. Yep, and even though they kind of pull it off, does anyone really want to listen to that?
Not that the music on Destroyer Of The Void isn’t recognizable as Blitzen Trapper instantly. Their vice and virtue as a band is to come within a hair of writing a classic, if slightly unoriginal, melody and then throwing a surprise note at you, keeping the listener off-balance and keeping the songs from being too simple. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Though “Furr” is about as traditional as it gets, “Wild Mountain Nation” is a great example of this, where the guitar licks and last line of the verse are great hooks, but the song doesn’t take a straight line to connect the two, leaving the listener glad they took the worthwhile journey. Save a couple tracks in the middle and the terrific closer, the songs from this record don’t have any pay-off of this sort. You are just left wondering if you have just heard avant garde country or lackluster songs.
“Destroyer of the Void” is a great example. It has a lot of elements that seem interesting on paper: Queen-ish acapella opening into an ELO song written by The Grateful Dead that is six minutes long and has a killer guitar solo. And, as you listen to it, it sounds like a difficult song to write and probably perform. The sad thing is that it just doesn’t sound good. Nothing about it is memorable other than the fact that it exists and you just listened to it seven times only to recall who it sounded like, not what it sounded like. Charles Bukowski’s tombstone is inscribed with the epitaph “don’t try,” which I have always applied to a general artistic advisory. The first three songs sound like the band is trying really hard.
Then we reach “The Man Who Would Speak True”, yet another one of Blitzen Trapper’s narrative murder ballads, which is pretty much the worst thing they do. Like “Black River Killer” from Furr, these tracks come off so hokey and cliche that they nearly unravel all the quality tracks that accompany them. I am not sure what Blitzen Trapper want to be, but I am pretty sure they don’t want to be the indie Everlast. “Love and Hate” also shows them not only taking a misstep, but making a wrong-turn off a cliff. While actually stumbling on a memorable melody, they take their earlier ELO and Queen references and coin a new genre you will be bummed you didn’t think of first: country hair-metal. Other than hillbilly meth cooks, I don’t know what demographic this kind of jam could be playing to.
But if you can stick with it, Blitzen Trapper do have a few jams on here, and though not as strong as previous albums’ high water marks, they are worth the forty-five minutes of time invested. “Heaven and Earth” is a delicate piano ballad that could be on Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born or Sky Blue Sky. The track plays separator to the much better second half, like Furr‘s Neil Young homage “Not Your Lover”, but without that song’s too-close-for-comfort vocals. And the album’s strongest song has some competition on side B, namely a rocker that doesn’t go astray in “Dragon’s Song”, and “Sadie”, another song using a name that you never actually meet people having, despite the fact that one in four girls in songs are named Sadie. “Sadie” is the album’s most accessible melody, yet it doesn’t sound stale or boring. Rather, it is almost cutting edge compared to the other, purposefully flawed pieces.
And with rock and roll seeming to run out of original songs year after year, bands with a good melodic sense like Blitzen Trapper force themselves to muck up their material rather than accidentally steal someone else’s song. Or maybe they have heard the same kind of music their whole lives and refuse to continue 50+ years of ideas about what constitutes a good song. I can’t tell you what they are thinking when they write a song, but music is more mathematical than people want to admit, and you can’t throw an oddball note or key change in a song and expect it to work. There is still original music to be made, music that isn’t work for people to have to enjoy. It doesn’t have to be dumbed down, either. But at the end of the day, it has to sound good. Luckily, with Blitzen Trapper, we know there is talent based on past work and the few keepers on Destroyer of the Void. Because they don’t come across as innovators or musical rebels here, just technically sound musicians with poor songwriting skills.