Wind the clock back 10 years and it really seems like Blitzen Trapper were headed toward legendary status. They’d just made the leap from independent releases to a label, signing their first-ever contract with Sub Pop, and they were making waves with their fourth LP, the wildly versatile Furr. The record earned positive notices from just about everyone, including numerous appearances on end-of-the-year lists. Rolling Stone even ranked the title track as the fourth-best single of the year, behind Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” Santigold’s “L.E.S. Artistes” and MGMT’s “Time to Pretend.” The blurb called the song “deceptively pretty, deeply weird, and nearly perfect,” and praised it as “Bob Dylan on klonopin.”
“Bob Dylan on klonopin” is about as good a description as any, because Blitzen Trapper have always been a tough band to pin down. Their Wikipedia page classifies them as “alternative country,” but they don’t sound much like Ryan Adams or Jason Isbell. The closest parallel in the genre is probably Wilco, another band that started out with country roots before wandering off toward increasingly experimental pastures. But where Wilco’s 1995 debut A.M. serves up a palpable helping of twang on every song, Blitzen Trapper’s first album — their 2003 self-titled effort — put their restlessness on full display. For every country ballad like “Reno,” the album had a raucous noise-rock track like “Cracker Went Down.” Over the course of their first three albums, Blitzen Trapper turned their lack of genre allegiance into a strength. Classic country artists like Willie Nelson; folk-rock heroes like Neil Young; the dusty, insurgent southern rock of Drive-By Truckers; the wide-open landscapes of early Modest Mouse albums; I.R.S.-era R.E.M.; Odelay-era Beck: the band could claim all these points of reference and many others, a fact that made them intriguing to a broad array of listeners. From outlaw country fans to indie-rock-loving hipsters, Blitzen Trapper had something for everyone.
By the time Furr dropped on September 23, 2008 — 10 years ago this Sunday — Blitzen Trapper were primed for a breakthrough. Furr is the album that best distills everything Blitzen Trapper does well into a single statement. It balances their weirdness with ramshackle charm and boundless literacy in classic ’60s and ’70s rock. Case-in-point is the title track, which pairs a gorgeous Rubber Soul-like melody with a narrative about a young man whose restlessness leads him to become a wild beast. At its heart, the tale is a metaphor about bachelorhood and growing up, but the fable-like setup renders it more unsettling than the average coming-of-age tale.
That same sense of wild menace dominates much of Furr. “Black River Killer” is a creeping murder ballad whose narrator’s first impulse is to take lives. The band crashes through “Love U” like a tank, with howled vocals, sludgy guitars and frantic drum hits dominating the song’s midsection. “Echo/Always On/Easy Con” dissolves jarringly from a heartbreak ballad played on a wobbly old piano into a mess of ambient sounds, followed by an oddly triumphant funk jam. And “Lady on the Water” is a rain-soaked prayer of a song, one that feels spookily like getting lost in the woods and meandering further and further away from your own reality.
Therein lies the genius of Furr: listening to it feels like a dream or a trance. Everything about the record — from the stories in the songs to the sequencing to the way that frontman Eric Earley shifts his vocal style from song to song — feels calibrated to unmoor you from silly things like place and time. The result is a record that is challenging, disjointed and deeply weird, but also completely rewarding and entirely singular in the listening experience it provides.
In a lot of ways, Blitzen Trapper circa Furr were running a parallel route to Fleet Foxes, another band that broke through in 2008 with a critically acclaimed, dreamlike LP. Both bands hailed from the Pacific Northwest, with Fleet Foxes coming from Seattle and Blitzen Trapper native to Portland. Both bands had just released their breakout records via Sub Pop. Both bands were taking folk, country and roots-rock influences and making them sound cool and vital again. Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold even co-signed Blitzen Trapper, heaping praise upon “Lady on the Water” in a feature for Line of Best Fit. “I think a good folk song is like a machine, all elements perfectly calibrated,” Pecknold said. “This song is the Large Hadron Collider, smashing things together to get to the bottom of the universe."
For whatever reason, though, the two bands diverged after this point. Fleet Foxes rode their 2008 buzz to a Pitchfork album of the year title and near-household name status. Even today, following a six-plus year gap between their second (2011’s Helplessness Blues) and third (last year’s Crack-Up) full-length albums, Fleet Foxes still command solid sales figures and near-mythic levels of reverence from music writers and music fans alike. Blitzen Trapper, on the other hand, have largely gone back underground. Pitchfork didn’t even review the band’s last two albums and, as of last year, Blitzen Trapper are back to releasing their material independently.
“It’s hard to say what happened to Blitzen Trapper, because in reality, nothing happened to Blitzen Trapper,” No Depression wrote in a review of 2015’s All Across the Land. It’s an apt statement, because it illustrates the two conflicting trends that have dominated the band’s narrative since Furr. Blitzen Trapper were too weird and idiosyncratic to build up the kind of massive fanbase that Fleet Foxes won over, too devoted to carving out their own corner of the music world, genre or fan base be damned. Certainly, following the band’s arc over the past 10 years has been an exercise in unpredictability. They’ve oscillated between experimental gestures (2013’s VII, which the band described, fairly accurately, as a “futuristic hip-hop/country-rock hybrid”) and more conventional releases (2015’s All Across the Land, a straight-ahead roots-rock record with big riffs and anthemic choruses). They’ve never again recaptured the perfect storm of songs, timing and critical zeitgeist that they hit with Furr, though, which is why it remains their magnum opus. It’s not the easy everyday listen that Fleet Foxes is; it’s not a record that is ever going to end up on a “quiet music to study to” playlist. In the right moment, though, dropping the needle on Furr can be nothing short of transformative.