“Gold Past Life” is the first LP since 2016’s “Absolute Loser” for Eric D. Johnson, who is essentially the sole member and driving creative force of Fruit Bats. On this record Johnson finds himself locked in a poignant, wandering nostalgia. This nostalgia is not so much political as personal, metaphorically spinning itself back into childhood days in Michigan and the memory of being born, among other things. The past, whether it’s looked back on with rose-colored glasses or with spinning regret, seems as omnipresent in Johnson’s world as it is with most of us.
On most of “Gold Past Life,” the Fruit Bats sound has been cleaned up a bit. It still manages to sound mildly related to the project’s debut “Echolocation” 18 years ago, though now with the inevitable flourishes and studio sparkle that comes with time. The folk influence of previous Fruit Bats albums has faded a little bit too, replacing acoustic strumming and parlor piano with a more straightforward pop feel. The unexpected, idiosyncratic mixes of past Fruit Bats albums are replaced by predictable arrangements that seem to aim for standardization rather than true originality.
“Ocean,” is an exception to this. The delayed piano that emerges in the latter half of the song adds a fresh ingenuity to the track. Still, it can’t help quell the feeling that the song was better off when decorated with just one acoustic guitar. Johnson seems at his best when staying within the realm of simplicity, opting for reserved but well-thought-out flourishes rather than layers of by-the-book instrumentation. The unfortunate part is that almost every time the full band kicks into gear on “Gold Past Life,” they lose something special about the song. This is true on opener “The Bottom of It,” which bails on a promising opening with a chorus that ultimately sounds predictable and stale.
Thankfully, the title track from “Gold Past Life” is much more interesting. It not only features that shrill falsetto chorus that Fruit Bats fans have come to love. We also get a soulful melodic lines and bouncy electric piano chords that seamlessly play off each other, lending the track an air of retro cool that much of Johnson’s best stuff has tapped into. His lyrics, echoing that mood, also reach backward: “You know you’re never gonna feel as right / Than in your gold past life / A ship of paper on a sea of fire / Back to your gold past life.” For a song that’s about the way memory can make the past, even an imagined one, better than our current reality, it feels quite sunny.
“Cazadera” is another song that benefits from some restraint. Johnson tentatively builds the song from a pulsing bass line, eventually singing the song’s title to the rhythm of acoustic guitar hits, adding and subtracting instrumentation tastefully. Eventually Johnson turns the line “Sometimes a cloud is just a cloud” into something of a mantra, desperately repeating as if to stubbornly remind himself of something.
“Your Dad Grandfather” includes some light and airy new age keyboard pads, a delicate touch that fades a little quickly into the song’s background. Regardless, it’s a catchy take on belief in a higher power and how that belief often fades for most of us as we grow older. We all have those people in our lives, often past generations, who for them religious faith was a critical part of their lives. Johnson taps into this ancestral nostalgia, and the weight of inheriting belief and questioning it at the same time.
Unfortunately, much of the material on “Gold Past Life” is a bit too polished, wiping away much of what made Fruit Bats such a unique project to listen to. “A Lingering Love” suffers from one of the more boring arrangements Johnson has put together over his 20 year career. I would even go as far to say that the song sounds as far removed from past Fruit Bats material as it gets on this album
“Barely Living Room” is as exciting and stimulating as “A Lingering Love” fails to really capture the imagination. The light string sounds that rise and fall in the background; the lightly marching beat and synth; and the dark muddy piano come together to create a one-of-a-kind experience. Exploring the dark depths of memory and the way that we experience and process events from the past, it dredges up the way fantasy and reality mix together in our brains:
“And in my dream, you are me
And I am sort of you
And I’m thinking about some of the things that you did
And it sort of feels like abuse”
This makes it a little frustrating that Johnson follows this song with “Mandy from Mohawk (Wherever You May Be),” a track where Johnson can’t help but incorporate every folk-rock trope he can think of into the arrangement. The strumming pattern is a bit banal and the solo doesn’t inspire much, but inside of it all is a great song trying to get out. A reimagining of this track would pay dividends in capturing the feeling that is ultimately lacking here.
There is a silver lining, though. Lyrically, Johnson is strong on “Gold Past Life.” On “Mandy,” his soul-searching reaches epic heights as he wonders what happened to a girl from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula he spent time with as a youth. This specter from the past acts as receiver for Johnson’s confessional, where he admits that he is “still lost in this world / Forever in the nether lands.” Throughout the song he imagines her finding a place to call home, discovering the tranquility of religion, and ultimately, falling in love. All of this tells us more about Johnson’s hopes and needs than he is probably ready to directly admit, and the most insightful line about Mandy’s supposed life acts as a mirror to Johnson’s deepest yearnings:
“It’s possible you may have found the lord
Me, I’m still figuring out exactly what the soul is for
But Mandy if you showed up with a bible at my door
Today I’d let you right in”
This lyric is faintly reminiscent of a famous line from the book “The Thin Red Line,” equal in its tentative reaching for spiritual solace:
“If I never meet you in this life
Let me feel the lack
A glance from your eyes
Then my life will be yours”
The album is hopelessly nostalgic in many ways, not only in the manner in which it looks to the past for answers, but also in how it wonders about the possibility of an alternative present if things had been different. Of course, there’s nothing really special about this. Nostalgia is a bonafide currency these days, which we trade in with recycled fashions and retrospective lists on pop records and films. Johnson is aware how all this personal and cultural memory swirls inside of us, and how as time spins onward, we can’t but increasingly look back for the answers we always thought were in front of us.
Overall, “Gold Past Life” is a pleasant listen, but it’s paint-by-numbers folk-pop feel isn’t doing anybody any favors. The most interesting things about this record is its conceptual design and its lyrical content, which makes it less surprising that the retro font on the front cover is often more stimulating than the album’s music. There are magical moments of memory and introspection here, but they can’t save it from being just an average effort from the artist.