The best stuff on the solid Absolute Loser makes for a welcome return of an underrated American band.
After 2011's Tripper, Fruit Bats' frontman Eric Johnson turned to making music outside of the band. The album he made, an eponymous record under the name EDJ, expanded on the shimmering astral sounds that hung on the edges of Tripper. Together, they felt in part like natural progression from the country-rock stomp of The Ruminant Band and previous albums, but also like a wholly fresh start.
If so, Absolute Loser is a backing away. This isn't a bad thing, though. EDJ, a solid and maybe undersold record, pushed that path to its logical limit. Now, the returned Fruit Bats have doubled down on the dust for Absolute Loser, and the best part of the record make the band sound tight and energetic, capable of building complex layers on top of purely sweet melodies. The title of the album couldn't be more perfectly timed. It sounds a lot like a defiant, political statement in the age of certain politicians suggesting we live in a winner-or-loser America. But the title is also a deeply personal statement, but a title for a person, but a deeply hurt state of being. The album mines that space of loss to understand it, but also tries to leave it behind.
Opener "From a Soon-to-be Ghost Town" drives along on a rollicking rhythm and chiming acoustic guitars, but if it feels like a road song Johnson still sings like he's stuck in a state of mind. "It's hard to be a queer one in a place full of queer ones," he pines, but the song keeps moving trying not to get stuck in that moment, trying to not to let the ghost town drag it down. On the mid-tempo shuffle of the title track, Johnson is "waiting for the storm to break" and feels he's an "absolute loser on the verge of something great".
The album seems to place Johnson within in-between spaces -- between what was and what will be -- and then vacillates in that moment between hope and worry. On "Absolute Loser", something great is coming. But on "None of Us", though Johnson wishes his subject well, he is offering some sobering advice. "You outta be careful when you're putting your heart out there / because some people are bound to be mean," he says, even as the person's he cautioning is sure that won't happen to them. Johnson sometimes presents himself as the voice of reason, and elsewhere as the wearied soul once again tussling with how things are. In the overcast gem, "It Must Be Easy", he seems to lament the hard road that is making ends meet as a musician. "It must be easy when they pay you to sing," he starts the song, and you can feel the frustration and hint of resignation in his voice.
Luckily, the album never succumbs to the worry, but sometimes the music doesn't quite match the complexity of the emotion. "None of Us" lacks the kind of lyrical specifics we usually get from Johnson, but the bright power-pop tune also feels thin, the hook too light, the song sweet but not quite lasting. The crunching psych-rock touches of "My Sweet Midwest" bog the song down and make its five-minute running time feel too long. And "Baby Bluebird" is a sweet enough ballad with an aching chorus, but too much of the song is devoted to wandering verses.
These songs don't fail -- Fruit Bats don't write bad songs -- but they represent a kind of plateau in the middle of the record. They may just feel slight in the shadow of other songs here, like the banjo-driven stomp of "Humbug Mountain Song" or the quiet melodies of "Birthday Drunk" (which do what "Baby Bluebird" can't quite pull off) or the moody space-pop of "It Must Be Easy". In these moments, the return to more organic instrumentation doesn't feel like a limitation for the band. Instead, in these moments, it's the music that acts as the agent of freedom, cutting the tales of isolation and loss free from the weights holding them down. In those moments, Fruit Bats add to their already impressive collection of memorable, even timeless, pop songs. The best stuff on Absolute Loser provides a welcome return of an underrated American band. If the songs aren't great at every turn here, they're still very good, making this a solid record for long-time fans happy to see the band back, and a good set for drawing in new fans.