In an age of hype machines and buzz bands, it’s unfortunate that consistently solid, thoroughly enjoyable artists such as Fruit Bats get tossed aside for the latest and greatest blogosphere sweethearts. Tripper, Fruit Bats‘ main man Eric D. Johnson’s fifth album in just over a decade under that moniker, is nothing short of the successes set forth by 2009’s sunny The Ruminant Band or 2001’s amiable debut, Echolocation. In fact, considering its collaborative production with Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Devendra Banhart), further exploration of narrative songwriting, and adventuring past the bounds of typical folk, Tripper is not only immensely successful, but it may just be Johnson’s most compelling work yet.
Tripper spends its 11 tracks and 40 minutes traveling a variety of landscapes, both sonic and lyrical. At first, it may not sound different than Fruit Bats’ previous work; it’s still rooted in acoustic guitar and Johnson’s sometimes falsetto, other times distant, nearly nasal voice. Subtleties such as the whimsical keys on “Tony the Tripper”, the atmospheric quality of “Wild Honey”, the occasional strings, or “Dolly”‘s bumpin’ organ set Tripper apart, though, acting both as a testament to Monahan’s inimitable production skills and Johnson’s growth as an artist. Lyrics-wise, Johnson meditates on change and transience and the ever-changing landscape of the open road through tales of people and places found along the way. “Tony the Tripper” and “Tangie and Ray” epitomize this, delivering impressive imagery alongside impeccable musicianship. The themes are nothing new but are so eloquently phrased and put to appropriate, lushly composed music. It’s an aesthetic that Johnson pulls off with ease.
Essentially, Tripper is not a drastic change for Fruit Bats but an homage to expansion and trying new things–while still knowing where home is. On quirky, standout single “You’re Too Weird”, Johnson croons, “Somebody needs to tell me what I’m supposed to do,” soliciting advice on love and life. Well, considering the quality of his output over the past decade, Tripper emphatically included, it’s pretty apparent that Johnson and Fruit Bats have it figured out on their own.