Tripper has more of a narrative focus than previous Fruit Bats efforts. On his fifth album, Eric D. Johnson consciously shifts to story-based songs. While he leans more toward the storyteller brand of songwriter, though, he steps away from the sunny folk pop that is most identified with Fruit Bats releases.
Tripper is less reliant on acoustic guitar strumming, incorporating bigger, darker sounds. Synthesizers, organs and string sections add a dramatic tension to the narratives. Throughout Johnson relays tales of escape, freedom and longing. “So Long” finds a woman so unhappy with her suburban life that she is unable to experience the simplest of pleasures. In “Dolly,” Johnson asks a woman to leave her husband behind, since he is “a mess,” and be join Johnson on the road. Similarly, in “You’re Too Weird,” Johnson tells a woman that “I was the only one who ever believed in you.”
The hope of Johnson’s loving declarations (“I don’t love much but I love you pretty bad”) have a stark counterpoint, though. The morbid “Tangie and Ray” describe a couple who wanted to escape their lives and be one with the wilderness, but they end up “one with the dirt and the moldering bones and litter leaves.”
The album’s finest track is another dreary number, “The Banishment Song.” Unnerving falsetto harmonies scold “you’re no longer welcome here/ you have brought this on yourself.” Banished from the home and all contact, the song’s subject is forced to “live under the sky of a broken down and blues-colored place.”
On Tripper, Johnson has the freedom to explore larger themes and spaces in the Fruit Bats sound. Putting an emphasis on story rather than song structure comes at the expense of pop hooks, though, leaving some songs lacking direction. As portrayed by Johnson, when you venture away from your comfort zone, sometimes you find an exciting new life and other times you end up one with the dirt. Tripper contains songs that do both.