Over the course of the 10 years that have elapsed since Fruit Bats released its first album, a rotating cast of musicians has shared the stage and the studio with frontman Eric D. Johnson. As a result, the past four albums have focused mainly on the singer/songwriter. But on Tripper, Johnson turns that formula around and focuses everything outward—the lyrical themes, the more-involved instrumentation and the mood.
With a folksy, Americana simplicity and plenty of falsetto, Johnson allows the other band members to have some fun as well. “The Banishment Song,” a six-minute track about coming to terms with your actions and fate, takes more than a minute to set the scene with only the stripped-down instrumentals to act as a prelude. On “Tangie And Ray,” the band plays up an inescapable theme of the album: home, both finding it and leaving it. The protagonists leave Maryland in search of adventure, but, as Johnson repeatedly tells you against the fast drum beats, “They’re never going home.” It’s the third track on the album and the first that hints at the possibility of an upbeat tempo, but it’s brooding when compared to the bouncing “You’re Too Weird.” This too tackles a narrative of running away, but it does so with a serious downbeat and a whining vocal openness that allows Johnson’s notes to drift off at the end of phrases like “I don’t love much, but I love you pretty bad.”
When closer “Picture Of A Bird” starts, you hear the song being counted off. That relaxed, throw-back-the-veil-and-invite-the-listener-in vibe defines the track, whose opening guitar strumming is more pronounced than most anything else on the previous 10. Johnson’s voice sounds happier and lighter than ever, giving it the feel of a casual jam between friends. “Everybody’s gotten their hearts burnt/From the turnpikes to the mud roads/They got nothing left to die for/And they got nothing left to run from,” he sings, not letting the downtrodden lyrics affect his mood.