There’s a sense of unheimlich in Blitzen Trapper’s latest album, Holy Smokes Future Jokes. Although Freud himself doesn’t make an appearance on the band’s experimental alt-country record, a number of other notable characters do, from Abraham Lincoln to Jim Morrison, all trapped within the “bardo” (a liminal space between existence and death). Inspired by Buddhist philosophy and George Saunders’ metaphysical novel, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ and the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’, Blitzen Trapper front man Eric Earley has described the album as a cosmic exploration into “what it means to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth.” Psychologically penetrating yet sonically soothing, the record transports the listener to an otherworldly space.
“The main theme that kept drawing me in when I was writing was what I call ‘cosmic humility,’” Earley says, when asked about the inspiration behind the record. “It’s the idea that humanity is not the center of the universe, or even the center of our own universe here on earth. We’re not the most important thing. Because we’ve only been around for, like, a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second in the grand scheme of things, you know? But it’s very difficult for humans to conceive of their own non-existence.”
Through a pantomime-esque cast of dead characters, a story unfolds that is philosophical, absurd, and uncanny. The very essence of the album feels like a return to the unfamiliar familiar: a psychedelic dreamscape saturated with nihilistic angst, quasi-historical figures, and 1960s surf rock guitar licks. Think: Wilco meets The Doors. Shakey Graves meets Donovan (but in his super psychedelic phase). The Eagles meet the Fruit Bats. I could keep going!
In “Bardo’s Light (Ouija Ouija),” we tunnel through swells of hypnotic guitar rhythms (Erik Menteer, Marty Marquis), driving bass lines (Michael Van Pelt), and the incessant pulse of a kick drum (Brian Adrian Koch) into a world of dark magic. The lyrics not only entrance the listener, but also hit an emotional chord: “Every night to be amazed / You recognize the devil’s face / You repeat the age-old phrase: / Ouija Ouija, tell me will I live before I die?”
In “Don’t Let Me Run,” we are taken to what feels like a 1960’s beach party. With surf pop melodies and a wash of ethereal harmonies and mesmerizing basslines, “Don’t Let Me Run” has the ostensible levity of a Beach Boys track, hiding a darker meaning in the eerie whine of a faraway saxophone and dissonant guitar wavering in the air. It’s a song that’s just begging to be featured in a music biopic just before our washed-up protagonist teeters from a euphoric high into a mental breakdown.
Of all the tracks, “Dead Billie Jean” would have to take the gold. Blitzen Trapper do what they do best on this one and tell a darn good story: Earley imagines Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean having committed suicide and ascending to the bardo, where she finds herself sharing a joint with Abraham Lincoln, Jim Morrison, and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. “She’s just hanging out with these dead rock stars that she doesn’t really know or care about,” Earley says. “But they’re all there getting high together.” It’s an absurd concept, yes, but it’s got an amazing beat and some pretty spectacular wordplay. Complete with some killer fiddle action, it’s a song that’s made for dancing at a desert music festival.
Exploring grief, reincarnation, and the frivolity of human life through metaphysical adventures and hallucinogenic trips, Holy Smokes Future Jokes is definitely the most bizarre contemporary folk album I’ve heard in a while. And I have to say, there’s a nice balance of philosophical waxings and utter nonsense. It kind of feels like a solipsistic alt-rock project born out of a 19 year old dude’s basement after he saw that Doors documentary. But in a good way! (Also with a higher budget). As an ex-philosophy major, I can get with it.