Somewhere, Blitzen Trapper is Dreaming This Right Now...
Many albums kick off with statements of purpose, rousing letters of intent that galvanize listeners into the right state of mind from which to properly enjoy the rest of the work. Other albums lead in with something more nebulous, a shuffling, ambient piece or something instrumental or choral that can be either a gentle lead-in to the album's true beginning or a measuring stick by which to gauge the contrast of the remainder of the proceedings. In that context, it seems a curious choice to begin an album with a song that is ostensibly about, of all things, falling asleep.
"Sleepytime in the Western World" kicks off Furr by Blitzen Trapper with a flurry of keyboard-drenched jangle and righteous electric soloing. We find our narrator "drifting down the sleepy river" into a dreamworld of unknown bliss and untold pleasures. But halfway through the song the radio dial is turned and white noise cuts through the harmony, the narrator wakes up on the street and things take a mildly dark turn - all is confusion, all is surreal. But not to worry, because the refrain comes back and all seems to be right with the world again by the end of the song. We, as listeners, must then ask ourselves if he had actually woken up at all or if his dream had been playing out all along - was this actually a dream that happened within another dream?
2008 presented fertile ground for indie rock of all sorts, none more so than those types that leaned on folk-rock as a cornerstone and offered earnest readings of modern society (or symbology that represented it) through a stoner's stereotypically philosophical meanderings. In what was either the best luck or worst luck ever depending on your position and affinity for this type of music, Furr arrived in the same year as Fleet Foxes towering self-titled debut album. Robin Pecknold's outfit completely recalibrated what people expected out of modern indie folk-rock: instead of embracing the new, Seattle's favorite sons reached backward to mine the idyllic harmonies of CSNY and the Beach Boys, telling stories of knights on winding roads, majestic mountains, and the universally overwhelming sensation of watching the sunrise. Taking a stylistic page or two from Joanna Newsom, this was more "Scarborough" fare than it was the impressionistic playground created by contemporaries like Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart.
Into this milieu arrived Blitzen Trapper's fourth album. If the lore is to be believed, the LP was largely crafted by the late-night tinkering of frontman Eric Earley after the band had left for the day, and it utilized imageries that weren't as much out of the past as they were outside of all time. Earley himself said in an interview in 2018 that he felt some of the music was "nostalgic but futuristic simultaneously" - he knew that there was a bit of uncanny juxtaposition in the way these songs were coming together, and his characters and stories embodied the dichotomy to great effect. His titular "Black River Killer" is an outsider in the deepest sense, unaware and uncaring of how to fit into some "normal" version of society - while he is less a misanthrope than he is a classic sociopath, he is the incarnation of an archetype that goes all the way back to Cain killing his brother in the best-selling book of all time. In the album's title track and most obvious nod to Bob Dylan's whimsical acoustic days, a boy of seventeen wanders into the woods to listen to angels only to realize that the angels he hears are wolves. His need to belong to something primal and natural drives him to become a part of their pack, and he stays that way until he finds a wife who hears the same song. He is Romulus and Remus, raised by animals and thereby sanctified into a human life that is blessed with a sense of place that others lose track of in the hustle and bustle of modernity. "Fire and Fast Bullets" speaks of "dragons and demons alive in the sky", wizards, and level-headed boys who keep their cool - it is disorienting phantasmagoria LARPing butting up against the chaos of modern concerns, in both ways entirely untethered from the sequence of time.
Near the middle of the album, "Not Your Lover" offers a comedown and a chance to reorient. Leaning up against the wall that encloses the labyrinth’s mysterious center, Earley finds his narrative voice questioning a relationship by musing about how he no longer dreams of his significant other. Over the trembly chords of an audibly old and disused piano, he admits that he doesn't "know what's in store" but he is committed to staying in the relationship…as long as he's awake. The protagonist here can be counted on, but not while he's asleep. This can be read as yet another bleary-eyed take on the lack of attachment between us, as characters, and the time in which we live. The takeaway is, in part, that the people we love are plot devices in our stories, but they don't dictate our movements while we're mired in the subconscious space of dreaming; our dreams are our own for better and for worse.
In his own writing about the album's development, Earley points out that the techniques used in recording were born at least somewhat out of necessity for a working band that still had day jobs in order to pay rent, equal parts haphazard alchemy and intentional execution. He concludes that while they weren't always using the best techniques even for the time, the same ones went on to be used purposely on later albums by other bands: "[these flaws in production are] all industry standard production fare now". In effect this less-than-optimum, medium-fidelity sound proved to be a lynchpin in music moving forward, the form informing the function in ways predictable in retrospect but unforeseen at the time. Blitzen Trapper was ahead of another curve without even trying to be, the prizing of the seeming authenticity of relatively shoddy recording over the glossy corporate shine of perfectly reproduced sonics. One only needs to perform a google search on "bedroom indie music" to see that there is a premium on this sound in certain circles and communities.
Furr ends with "Lady On the Water", another oblique reference to a timeless archetype, that of the goddess who magically appears in the life of a hero to relay some vital information or tool that will help them on their quest. Earley paints the heroine as the giver of fortunes, acknowledging that she can make him rich or make him poor over a finger-picked Appalachian lullaby of a melody. This imagery fits with the mystic Arthurian gift-giver as much as it does with the Legend of Zelda, a character outside time beholden to circumstances and context yet profoundly above it all. In the "Lady" the narrator has found both a companion and a fixer of problems. No longer content to aimlessly wander in the woods, he now has an aspirational desire for pleasures that are simple and pure but he is wise enough to see that he cannot attain them solely through his own efforts. He needs a friend/lover in the journey to find these things, and he knows that the least complex things can be the most difficult to find.
Shadows were cast far and wide by the titans of the folk-osphere in the late 2000s, and their shade fell through all genres of rock. Earley and his band stepped out from under them to craft a work that is delicate and introspective while also being jammy and bombastic, but most importantly they used a dreamy, out-of-time sense of logic and pacing that served to disassociate them from the other acts in the scene while offering listeners a rustic alternative to the folk-inspired music that seemed inextricably linked to either its own time or to a time that had long since passed. Perhaps a re-evaluation is in order when it comes to their choice to begin the song cycle with "Sleepytime…", it might be a statement of purpose after all. Viewed from a distance it might be that it is the incandescently lumbering throw-it-all-at-the-wall opus that lets the listener know that they are stepping into the band's dream-fugue where time is an untrustworthy construct and characters reflect age-old tropes in the new high-def mirrors of the 21st Century. "Listen to Vampire Weekend and Cut Copy, if you'd like," it seems to say, "but when your eyelids fall, this is the map you'll need to navigate the disturbingly foreign terrain concocted by your own deepest thoughts and desires."
There is a risk for the band in this approach to be sure, and luckily it paid off handsomely. Regardless of its success or failure though, for the listener there is already an inherent comfort in knowing that it's not just our own heads that feel a little fucked up sometimes.