If ever an album was tailor-made for a road trip (and this road trip has to have the words ‘great’ and ‘American’ in its description), it’s Fruit Bat’s latest record, Gold Past Life. Eric D. Johnson – the project’s singer/songwriter – flexes all sorts of songwriting muscles in this album: country influences here, funk hits there, glimmers of singer/songwriter noodling and slacker rock dropped into the mix. But in Gold Past Life, the dominant tone that bursts through is the shiny clarity of Gold as opposed to the hazy, other-worldliness of Past Life, and the impressive breadth to Johnson’s songwriting can easily go unnoticed thanks to a hi-fi studio production that smooths out some of the crinkly charm.
No listener could doubt that Johnson has a uniquely inventive mind and a satisfyingly disarming songwriting approach, and the high production works beautifully for the more radio-friendly toe tappers. Chief among these are earworms ‘Drawn Away’ and ‘The Bottom Of It’. In the former, a cheery, nomadic love song, Johnson sings “My love and I went looking for the hospital where she was born/ but it’s not there anymore” and you can practically smell the dusty roads and petrol station sandwiches. Likewise, in the rock/funk title track, Johnson’s courage more than pays off, as his agile voice duets perfectly with a biting guitar solo.
But then, there are the other moments: tender lullabies and quiet dream-confessionals, inward uncertainties where it may have been better to allow a little more of the scrappy side of life to come through. As well written as they invariably are, some stark moments are powerful enough that high definition does them no favours. In the stripped-back campfire musing ‘Ocean’, Johnson sings “Back when I needed someone, you tucked me in/ like I was some orphan kid,” and while it’s easy to imagine a love song like this being written in hushed tones in the dead of night, here the immediacy is dragged under the light of day, the tenderness lost. The same can be said for the piano-ballad ‘Barely Living Room’. An unusual journey through a bad dream, the lyrics are strikingly offbeat: “In my dream you are me/ and I am sort of you”, and yet the hazy uncertainty is undercut by the sonic clarity.
But when this album works, it really works, feeling like half of the Bee Gees have hopped into a canoe with Fleet Foxes and are touring the Pacific Northwest. Brimming with energy and an almost premature nostalgia, Gold Past Life is a great showcase for Johnson’s restless mind, and certainly the band’s finest album since (and probably a little while before) their ‘I-don’t-know-why-atus” – a post in 2013 in which Eric D. Johnson announced the end of Fruit Bats ”for no major or dramatic reason”. The album flourishes in its vibrant singles and trans-American musings, when the songs are tight, and catchy, charm is in abundance. But that is half of the album and half of the road trip. Those midnight hour moments of reflection written into the album but never fully captured – those are the moments where you really grow.