Fruit Bats Strikes 70’s AM Radio Ear Candy With ‘Gold Past Life’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

What is it with indie-rock and the wild animal names? Tame Impala, Fleet Foxes, Mountain Goats, Deerhunter, Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear, Minus the Bear, Bear in Heaven, Message to Bears…a lot of bears, really. Perhaps it’s steeped in the nostalgia the genre in all its breadth often embraces. A longing to return, to reconnect to ages past through totemic symbols of nature and its order of chaos. Or perhaps we just like animals. Either way, Eric D. Johnson’s Fruit Bats project holds the line. Warm and inviting, the music he’s made with his ever-changing lineup over the years oozes a love of nature. A yearning for simplicity permeates his words while the baffled deer looking a little lost in its resort beach surrounds that features on the cover of Gold Past Life – his eighth record – is worth its own thousand words. But also woven through his songs is the ineffable loss of our collectively appointed golden music eras. A little George Harrison, a little Byrds and a little Kinks, soft hues of peak Beach Boys surf also color the movement of these songs. 

Johnson more than just nods to his influences through his music. He fully recognizes the pit of wistfulness it’s so easy to fall into and that tends to enrapture every generation, and it becomes the entire crux of Gold Past Life. He played with The Shins for many years and so it’s tempting to draw comparisons – indeed those temptations are well founded. While distinctive enough to be far away from ‘poor-man’s-Shins’ territory, it nonetheless draws on the same hook that made The Shins a favorite of fans and critics alike. These songs sound fun, but that veneer belies a depth of meaning that only reveals itself upon repeated and intentional listening. ‘Drawn Away’ takes the form of an almost boppy classic country rock strummer – the style and vocals drawing on Tallest Man on Earth, and thus Bob Dylan, vibes generously. But as catchy as its chorus is, it’s achingly sorrowful in the cards it plays. “Drawn away from every place we’ve ever lived, from every life we’ve ever led”, he sings in a four-minute exploration for meaning and solace, “some semblance of a spiritual home, some little place to be reborn”.

It’s one of the strongest tracks on the record, but its strengths are often repurposed throughout Gold Past Life’s 11 tracks. ‘A Lingering Love’ frolics forward with infectious momentum and melody even as it dwells on the most grass-is-greener tendencies of mankind, and the damage that can do to our present state. “Good to hear you’re feeling better, but I still got a ways,” he sings, “oh, to be where the weather’s wetter. Still, I got a lingering love for this place, I don’t wanna give up”. It goes deep into the idealistic lens we tend to see other places and times through – the symbols we overlay onto our lives. “Sometimes a cloud is just cloud” goes the refrain of ‘Cazadera’, a plodding song that plays on the ‘hunting ground’ translation of its title with candid lines like “some nights I just feel gone, can’t wrap my mind around who I am.” The warmth of his tones and distant effects flesh out songs like opener ‘The Bottom of It’, whose opening synths give way quickly to one of the most pop tunes of the record, the joy Johnson feels at someone else who’s “found yourself man, and that’s something”, only slightly tinted by a vague sense of envy in the lyrics.

Despite the sadness of its themes, it’s largely upbeat stuff musically. The momentum is slowed by the odd restrained moment, like the beautiful piano balladry of ‘Barely Living Room’ or the steady build of reverb-heavy synths and strums that closes things out on ‘Two Babies in Michigan’. But on the whole, it’s the kind of music that feels very welcome in any cafe, bar or soiree you might be throwing. Which makes the importance of what Johnson is trying to say even more poignant in its accessibility. We’re bogged down in our inability to appreciate where we’re at – instead yearning for false rememberings of times past or the imagined perfection of far off lands. As though he’s saying that it’s constant and it’s everywhere, and is worth pouring yourself into without having to make sad music. Gold Past Life operates almost on two levels for Fruit Bats, the sheer pleasure of making fun music that draws on the things we’ve treasured from ages past, while consciously rejecting the temptation to live forever in that space. The result is a record that is both easy to leap into, and rewarding to stay in.

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