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There's a rollicking charm to Blitzen Trapper's blend of folk and classic rock that suggests a summer day. Perhaps it's the bright, sunny '60s melodies or the way guitars alternate between the crackle of country-fried distortion and jangling acoustics, vacillating between Neil Young and Jerry Garcia like a picnic featuring football and Frisbee. Or maybe it's just how frontman Eric Earley's thoughtful songs sound perfect tooling down the highway with the windows down, his meditations teased out over the rolling asphalt.
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That's what makes American Goldwing an ideal title for Blitzen Trapper's sixth album, a nostalgic release that captures that same feeling of moving forward while sitting still. Like the titular road motorcycle, it's about what happens while you're covering that wide-open expanse.
"They're sort of the first really big touring bike you could take on long distances without your hands and your butt going numb. It's a bike made for long travel, and really only useful in America, because it's so big," Earley says. "That is what it evokes, and I don't think it's really deliberate in any way. It just sort of sounded right."
It matches the album's journeying theme, whether Earley's the weary traveler, all of whose "love songs fall on wasted ears," imagining the prodigal's return on "My Home Town," or offering a Stonesy demand for freedom with "Your Crying Eyes." The album represents a return to Earley's roots both musically and geographically in the wake of a couple of emotionally difficult years.
"A lot of the songs are about where I grew up, a lot of the imagery is from my youth, and the sounds, too, are a throwback in certain ways. I was trying to write about what I know as opposed to trying to cook something up that isn't personal. It's really more just about my own personal life as a kid and even now," he says. "Certain songs are about relationships I've had in the last year or two, and, in that way, the songs have a lot of meaning for me. This is a way of working through things and making sense of my life."
It has been a whirlwind four years for Earley — certainly enough to excuse some emotional whiplash. Indeed, it was another period of "sense-making" that propelled Earley to success. He was homeless for two years when he was 28 and 29. Toward the end, he was working on the music that would become 2007's Wild Mountain Nation — the album that caught Sub Pop's attention — and their breakthrough Sub Pop debut, 2008's Furr. When his homeless stint began, Earley simply had lost life's thread.
"I just didn't give a shit. I didn't care what happened to me. During the first year of that time, I didn't do anything, really; then I started making [music]," he says. "We had this studio space at this old building that was falling apart, and I would just stay there and work on it in the middle of the night during the summer. It was just a way of getting perspective on what I wanted."
Earley had recently finished recording Blitzen Trapper's fifth album, Destroyer of the Void, when he wrote many of the songs that would become American Goldwing. At first, he thought it might be a solo album, but his perspective quickly changed.
"A lot of material ended up being kind of hard rock stuff, and so I brought [Blitzen Trapper drummer Brian Adrian Koch] in because he's a really great drummer. I just sort of ended up realizing this was going to be more of a band record, because I didn't want to make a folk record. I wanted something with guitars and solos but then also that country influence," says Earley.
The result is music blending spunky Allmans rock and ambling country-folk worthy of The Band, just as it balances its homesickness and a wandering heart into a melancholy cocktail spiked with subtle disappointment.
"The only kind [of love song] I'm any good at is the tragic love song, like [Furr's] 'Not Your Lover.' I think that's because I've never really experienced any love in my life that ever worked out well," says Earley, getting a touch verklemmt. "You have to think about the other person and not just yourself. That's the problem. You have to like being selfless, and humans hate being selfless. It's not part of our makeup. You want things to be fair all the time. That just doesn't happen. It's a shame."
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