Blitzen Trapper—vocalist and songwriter Eric Earley, lead guitarist Erik Menteer, bassist Michael Van Pelt, keyboardist Marty Marquis and drummer Brian Adrian Koch—has been a shifting beast since the raucous mystery of 2007’s breakthrough Wild Mountain Nation. Across seven previous albums, they have been cosmic tricksters, calm folkies, twang-funk wildmen, ragged psychedelic jammers, and to-the-bone rock ‘n’ rollers. All Across This Land steers away from much of the variety in the band’s catalog, settling into Blitzen Trapper’s tightest, most focused rock ‘n’ roll groove. It’s a throttle-up, open-highway sort of album, full of easygoing melodies and fist-pumping guitar hooks.
Much of the credit goes to Earley, who has grown into a Tom Petty of the Northwest—writing songs that are earnest, relatable and melodically captivating, even as he adopts different styles. With song like the direct “Rock and Roll (Was Made for You),” All Across This Land is in part an homage to the music itself, the power of guitars and drums and amplifiers to transform shy kids into adventurous souls, shouting and dancing as they find new lives at louder volumes. But even amid the reminiscing and nostalgia, the record examines relationships, maturity, loss and struggle.
“Across The Land” kicks the album off with a vintage Southern rock feel, a two-guitar attack fueled by thick riffs and Earley’s vocals, full of swagger as he sings about the rock-band life that has kept Blitzen Trapper steadily out on the road for more than a decade.
“Rock and Roll (Was Made for You)” follows, with Earley’s joyousness tempered by some stark imagery that acknowledges the music’s darker side: “I’ve been playing this music man for so so long / It’s like track marks running up and down my arm / But I still can’t get myself to move out to the farm / ‘Cause the things you love they can do the most harm.” The song concludes, fittingly, in an extended jam that explodes like fireworks.
“Mystery and Wonder” finds Earley singing back to his formative years, discovering music and taking the ride: “After all of these years I wouldn’t take a single thing back.” The laid-back “Lonesome Angel” takes a country-rock turn, with harmonica and piano taking the spotlight, complemented by slide guitar and violin.
“Nights Were Made for Love” distills the album’s message with Springsteen-esque imagery and urgency with lyrics like, “We were stupid, strange and young at heart / And all we wanted was to rock and roll.” That youthful yearning, that solid line between obligation and freedom, that carpe diem thrust of Born to Run is reincarnated in Earley’s lines: “The days were made for running, the nights they were made for us / The days were made for working hard and the nights they were made for love.”
“Cadillac Road” is the album’s story song, a driving beat framing a dark tale, about a dying town and the one man who stayed behind, a hermit who couldn’t face the changing times. Earley is a gifted storyteller, and in the vein of “Feel The Chill” from VII and “Black River Killer” from Furr, “Cadillac Road” expands from the life of an individual character to illustrate larger themes.
The closing “Across The River” is the album’s high point, with Earley singing about life and death, the journey and the divide, with the river serving as the mythological afterlife. With a simple acoustic guitar, accented by slide guitar and harmonica, the tune culminates in a message from beyond, a father saying that it’s not time to meet again, that there’s more to do in life.
In a sense, All Across This Land is Blitzen Trapper’s most conventional album. But it’s also an album 15 years in the making, as the musicians are both in command of their talents individually and completely dialed in as a band. For fans of the band’s more shambling, chaotic tendencies, perhaps the next record will swing back toward what Earley has called the “hillbilly gangster” sound of VII, or even the “drunken scarecrow who had been dragged behind a truck” of Wild Mountain Nation. Indeed, the band has tended to oscillate between those wilder albums and more straightforward rock since landing at Sub Pop in 2007. But with each turn back and forth, it’s a better, more confident band delivering the next phase. So even as All Across This Land is a triumph of Blitzen Trapper’s classic rock sensibilities, perhaps there’s an oddball masterpiece waiting in the wings.