When someone mentions studying a document purportedly
written in the eighth century by a founder of the oldest branch of Tibetan
Buddhism, one might naturally assume that person is a practicing Buddhist, or
at least intensely interested in one of the world’s earliest religions.
But that’s not the case for Eric Earley, lead singer, guitarist, keyboardist, songwriter and nucleus of the Portland, Oregon band Blitzen Trapper. Earley says his fascination with the Bardo Thödol (“Liberation Through Hearing in the Intermediate State”) known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, was purely literary at first. He sought it out after reading novelist George Saunders’ New York Times bestseller, Lincoln in the Bardo.
And down the rabbit hole Earley went. He steeped himself in the concept of the Bardo, the intermediate state one enters at death, and its ancient instruction manual for navigating the journey from that plane to the next.
“The deities — who are actually part of you — attempt to guide you out of the cycle of birth and rebirth into enlightenment. You’re basically trying to go extinct,” Earley explains. “I saw it as a really interesting way to look at the human psyche and mental health. … And this idea that we’re all a conglomeration of different personalities.”
For Earley, mental health is more than just a subject for observation. He’s also a mental health professional, arranging housing for homeless people and helping them obtain other services.
Fortunately, he still has time for rabbit holes. When he emerged from this one, he was carrying Holy Smokes Future Jokes, an album that addresses death and mortality from perspectives not common among immortality-seeking Westerners. We’re raised to accept the Judeo-Christian doctrine of eternal life — ideally spent frolicking in heaven, not sweating in hell. Or locked in purgatory.
Despite the fact that his songs’ characters enter their intermediate states after some very dark events — car wrecks, shootings, suicide, even an errant meteor — the album is infused with a lightness of being. Its pretty chamber-pop carries wisps of the Beatles perfumed with hints of Corner Shop (“Baptismal”) or the Kinks’ softer side [“Bardo’s Light (Ouija, Ouija)”], and in the title tune, inflections of Brazilian tropicalia. (“I’ve always been really into Brazilian music — the older stuff — Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes,” Earley says. “That’s always kind of crept in there, if I let it.”)
That very intentional lightness suggests the freeing feeling of release, the acceptance of life’s impermanence, necessary to achieve the state of nirvana Buddhists seek.
But Earley says he was attracted to “the beauty of this idea that when you die, you are faced with these kinds of choices.” Those who don’t follow the advice offered by 48 peaceful deities and 52 wrathful deities will get stuck in the Bardo; they can leave at any time, but don’t know that. The people in these songs don’t always realize they’ve died, he explains, “And they’re stuck in this place because they’re holding on to things that they should be letting go of.”
In the clever pop-cultural conflation of “Dead Billie Jean,” Earley imagines the subject of Michael Jackson’s song, who tried to make a suicide pact with him, actually upholding her end of the deal. That lands her in the Bardo, where she parties there with Lincoln and dead rockers including Jim Morrison and Brian Jones. But she’s somehow unaware of her no-longer-living status, and might indeed be undergoing a rebirth. Earley sings over acoustic guitar, drum and fiddle on this folk-pop tune, his lilting voice proclaiming:
I was smoking dope with Lincoln
In a Chrysler on the hill
In the no man’s land where spirits seem to go
Cause it’s all in who you know.
Honest Abe he cracked his window just a skosh
To breathe, said it’s time that we both leave,
You and me and Billie Jean
Cause we’re just sliding through the ether in a dream
And nothing’s what it seems to be to me.
Produced and engineered by Raymond Richards, the album also seems to achieve multiple states. In one, listeners might carefully study the lyrics and attempt to decipher their meanings; in another, they can be uplifted and relaxed by its prettiness.
“I like to give people the choice of reading as deeply as they want to into it,” Earley says. “I grew up listening to a lot of R.E.M. and [Michael Stipe’s] lyrics were so bizarre and anachronistic, and that’s what I loved about him. Like, the early stuff where you’re just like, what is he talking about? But he was always good at creating these images that would draw you in. And you could read into them as much as you wanted or as little as you wanted. You could just enjoy stuff as a pop song. That’s my interest, especially with this record.”
Earley doesn’t speculate about whether the concept of Bardo is real or illusory; what interests him is how one arrives there. “It has to do with detachment from all desire; from all kinds of things,” he says. “And I think that that’s an interesting and a valuable message in America these days.”
Check out our review of the latest from Blitzen Trapper.
photo by Rachel Lipsitz Photography