On 2008’s Furr, the closest Blitzen Trapper has come to a breakthrough, the band dropped a strong set of songs that was more focused than its predecessor, Wild Mountain Nation, but split between an Americana-leaning sound and something a bit more alternative and glammy. The more rustic fare accounted for most of the highlights with tracks like “Black River Killer”, the title track, and “Stolen Shoes & A Rifle,” and it seemed like the band realized this, releasing the former two as singles. It was looking good for a follow-up that played further to the band’s strong side, which was one of the reasons why the meandering, proggy follow-up, Destroyer of the Void, was such a disappointment.
Cut to now, the release of the simply titled VII, and we finally get an entire album devoted to the sound that served them so well on half of Furr. The results are at once satisfying and a harsh reality check about the passage of time and creative muses. The band sounds fine – damn fine even, from start to finish, proving again that “rootsy” is a tone that suits them handsomely. But the guys in Blitzen Trapper are five years on from Furr, where the rustic stuff was written with a mythic, almost fearful reverence for nature, both human and otherwise. The material on VII is grounded in the modern world, full of country music clichés, and proves that it’s not easy to recapture old magic.
To be fair, the band really has never sounded better as a unit – experience and experimentation have paid off and given them a subtle versatility that’s frequently on display but rarely detracts from the main tone. Songs like “Thirsty Man” and “Barnstormer” rock with serious down-home swing, and “Ever Loved Once” employs pedal steel and expert ebb and flow to arrive at the most fully realized display of their country-folk bona fides. On the other end of the spectrum, the band still manages to successfully experiment within its “good old boy” sound, such as on “Oregon Valley,” which sounds like it’s been set to rain pouring on a porch roof. “Earth (Fever Called Love)” may have an awful title, but it’s a heady cocktail of ‘70s symphonic soul and delta blues.
What holds VII back mostly are its lyrics – this is some seriously uninspired songwriting. The problem isn’t so much that they’ve dropped the folkloric approach of Furr as the fact that they haven’t found anything worth while to replace it with. Most of the album is little more than a series of country music/southern rock stock phrases strung together to music – The Devil turns up as an antagonist at least twice (first “in a woman’s kiss”), on “Ever Loved Once” they’re obsessed with “rattling chains”, and two songs later the boys are “knock-down drunk”, informing us that demons don’t sleep. “Valley of Death” even sounds like a Furr leftover that was justly left off, showing just how much of the magic the lyrics have lost in a handful of years.
VII is far from bad music and is probably a hoot blasting out of car speakers, but it’s hard to not come away feeling the band phoned it in where the songs are concerned. It’s unfair to expect a repeat of albums cut before Obama entered the White House, but it’s a shame Blitzen Trapper haven’t caught any new lightning in their bottle, or at least approached their new album with any of the ambition that marked earlier work