Writing the follow-up to 2008’s Furr was never going to be easy for Eric Earley. Blitzen Trapper’s mountaintop album took the Beatles- and Bob Dylan-influenced pastiche of Wilco’s Summerteeth and expanded it to include even more of Gram Parsons’ country-rock and more of Dylan’s rambling folk, becoming the quintessential album for fans of Portland’s favorite indie sextet. 2009’s Black River Killer EP raised the bar even further, cementing the 2008 sessions’ fabled place in the Pacific Northwest scene. Given the challenge of repeating such a mythical accomplishment, it’s no surprise that Earley feints once toward a new direction, then retreats to patterns well-established on Furr and 2007’s Wild Mountain Nation.
Destroyer of the Void’s title track and opening left turn erupts with a blast of baroque prog-rock that deftly imagines a rejuvenated Queen fronted by Jeff Tweedy. The resemblance is so pronounced that the song could have easily been subtitled “Bohemian Foxtrot” or “Yankee Hotel Rhapsody.” It’s also the album’s lone standout and, unfortunately, its only nod in a different direction. After it, much of the rest of Void revisits the folksy travel songs and woodsy crunch and crumble found on Furr. Earley even pens a presumed sequel to that album’s highlight, “Black River Killer.”
In the tradition of murder ballads, “Black River Killer” stands as a shining example of how to craft a good one, but “The Man Who Would Speak True” rings as a parody to the form. The lyrics wander through a trite story line: “I fit my tongue on the Devil’s rum/ In a roadhouse run by a godless bum/ On a drunken night with a stolen gun/ I shot my lover as she made to run/ The judge said, ‘Son, what have you done?’/ But I didn’t say a word, no I didn’t say one/ And the judge sent me away.” And the repeated rhyme scheme of its last few couplets reads like an unintentional, and rather awkward, nod to Theodor Geisel.
The paired songs “Love and Hate” and “Heaven and Earth” recall Furr’s juxtaposition of “God + Suicide” and “Fire + Fast Bullets.” But where those were bright spots on the former album, the more recent duo merely fades into the surrounding wall of recycled ideas. Even “Heaven and Earth”’s gallant plan to “Shatter all these waking dreams/ We’ve taught ourselves to keep us free and clean” doesn’t resonate in the way that “God + Suicide”’ moving chorus did. Still, the new songs are executed well enough, once again balanced by the delicate precision of Erik Menteer‘s guitar and the shuffling rhythms of Brian Adrian Koch’s drums.
Luckily, however, Blitzen Trapper save two of their better tunes for last. Penultimate tracks “Lover Leave Me Drowning” and “The Tailor” focus on delivering big harmonies, both capturing the attention with solid hooks and memorable melodies. On an album that quite simply comes up lacking in spots, they provide a healthy dose of the same brilliant elegance found on Furr. They also manage to temper the disappointment some fans may feel when comparing Destroyer of the Void to its predecessor. Hopefully, there’s an EP in our future with more of the prog experimentation found on the title track.