Album Review: Fruit Bats’ ‘Gold Past Life’

Who says nostalgia ain’t what it used to be? It’s back and better than ever, as they say, in Fruit Bats’ terrific eighth album, “Gold Past Life,” which, as the title would suggest, has a lot to say about the bittersweet pull of memories of simpler and easier times. Nearly every song is its own veritable boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past … in a sprightly indie-pop kind of way. It would not be backwards at all of you to pick it up.

At the still tender age of 43, Eric D. Johnson — who for all intents and purposes isFruit Bats, 20 years into the “band’s” career — might still seem a little short in the tooth to be writing an album that invokes middle age reveries as often as this one does. (Opening line: “Now that you’ve gotten to the autumn of your years…”) But if “Gold Past Life” sometimes seems like a concept album about remembrance of things lost, it has that in common with a lot of records written by guys half his age, too, who are hung up on the one who got away last year, if not a previous decade or century. In any case, Johnson spends a lot of the album determined to figure out how to live in the present, however large what’s gone looms — finding into his 40s that (to misquote Neil Sedaka) growin’ up is hard to do.

There’s some fun to be had, anyway, in getting mired in memories. That comes most of all in the title track of “Gold Past Life,” which looks back to a time when it was morning in America… or, more precisely, “Breakfast in America,” because its chirpy, retro electric piano and falsetto vocals sure make it sound like the homage to Supertramp that not everyone realized they needed. (You say the Bee Gees? Fine. We’re sticking with Roger Hodgson.) In this number, at least, there’s an upbeat mirth to the lyrics’ obsession with the past that almost renders them as self-mocking. “You know you’re ever gonna feel as right than in your gold past life,” sings Johnson. “A ship of paper on a sea of fire, back to your gold past life.” (Now there’s a boat against the current for you, F. Scott.) The track is such a power-pop blast that it’s almost hard to take seriously lines like “Helplessly staring at the stagnant stars / What was this thing that took your spirit away?” and “Breathlessly calling up your old love / Why did she have to take your essence from you?,” although in the end even a throwback groove as delightful as this one can’t completely denude the poignancy.

There isn’t as much mirthful ironic distance between the music and Johnson’s soul-searching verses on the rest of the album, where he wears his heart out on his sleeve without reminding anyone quite so much of Leo Sayer or brothers Gibbian. Fruit Bats’ satisfying default mode is a mid-to-up-tempo, strummy folk-rockiness somewhere between the Smiths and the Shins (only one of which counts Johnson as a former member). The sound is too synth-y for anyone to mistake it for Americana, although Johnson does get in a nicely country-flavored electric guitar break in “Drawn Away”; there’s some sweet steel guitar in “Your Dead Grandfather,” albeit over handclaps and a possibly mechanized drumbeat. Fans of the post-alt-country incarnation of Wilco will probably dig it if they can cotton to a more heightened pop content and a voice that’s more sweetness than rasp.

As good as the album sounds, though — and it sounds especially good on headphones. under the helm of producer Thom Monahan, who’s historically known how to put an atypical sonic spin on acoustic-leaners from Neko Case to Devendra Banhart — it’s as a lyricist where Johnson is really peaking here. There won’t be many albums in 2019 with as many quotable, cut-to-the-marrow lines as this one has, whether he’s finding hard-fought maturity in a handful of optimistic love songs or abandoning all hope of accumulating wisdom in some heartbreakers that determine the past is destiny.

Johnson has looked at clouds from both sides now. No, he literally does that here: “Hopelessly staring at a cumulus / What caused this flood that washed your courage away?” he sings in the title track. But two songs later, in the more chipper “Cazadera,” he forges a bridge out of repeating the line “Sometimes a cloud is just a cloud” over and over. The natural world also wiggles its way into “Ocean,” in which the Michigan native reveals, presumably autobiographically, that he “didn’t see a mountain ‘til the age of 24,” using that as an example of how, even decades later, “we’re just babies on the borderline of watching it all tumble into view.”

That optimism carries you through some other parts of the album that aren’t so literally or figuratively sunny. In “Barely Living Room,” which opens to the sound of a bare piano, he has a “bad dream” about what sounds like a dysfunctional upbringing, of which he sings, “I’m thinking about some of the things you did, and it sort of feels like abuse … I hate you but feel so bad for you too.” But he thinks back on his childhood as an idyll in the closing “Two Babies in Michigan,” a love poem to a sister who’s maybe also having some difficulty squaring the way this middle age thing has worked out: “You’re starting to feel that you’ve lost your tribe / Looking out at the endless drink with watery eyes.” Blink twice, and try to hold in the leakage, if you’ve been there.

It’s a pretty openly sentimental album, although on a couple of tracks, Johnson does get some digs in at the quasi-spiritual means other folks take to get through this thing called life, with mixed results. At least I think he means to be satirical in the opening “The Bottom of It,” in which he tells a fellow traveler: “So happy that you got to the bottom of the fears that were fettering you… You found yourself, man, and that’s something.” The suspicion that there might be some sarcasm attached to these congratulations seems to be confirmed when he mentions stones and amulets as part of what has brought this pal to a middle-aged comfort zone. Johnson takes on religious belief more explicitly in “Your Dead Grandfather,” which feels patronizing in a way his other songs don’t, although maybe he means it, a little, when he sings “let’s pray to the god of miracles that things stop being so terrible.”

Johnson finds a tenderly amusing middle ground in “Mandy From Mohawk (Wherever You May Be),” a song that’s a little bit reminiscent of Dawes’ “All Your Favorite Bands” in wondering where the long-lost girl he rocked out with in his teens might be now. He goes on a flight of fancy in wondering whether the lass with whom he enjoyed “a touch of the old heavy metal in your room / Benson and Hedges 120s under the moon” has become an evangelical in the decades since they drifted apart: “It’s possible you may have found the Lord / Me, I’m still figuring out what the soul is for / But Mandy, if you showed up with a Bible at my door today, I’d let you right in.”

That’s some good writin’, and there’s more gold in them-thar “Gold Past Life” hills and valleys. Your sense that this is one of the best-written albums of the year can only solidify listening to how Johnson reconciles the pull of the past with the need to proactively stake out the present in “Drawn Away.” He begins by recounting how “my love and I went looking for the hospital where she was born, but it’s not there anymore,” among other lost locales — but by the end of the tune, the couple goes “looking for our true north star / Some light to remind us where we are.” Even as dedicated a nostalgist as Johnson paints himself to be can come to realize that the future’s still a good place to go mining for gold, too.

Fruit Bats
“Gold Past Life”
Merge Records

Album Review: Fruit Bats' 'Gold Past Life'

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