Fruit Bats' 'Gold Past Life' Is an Exhilarating Trip Down Multiple Memory Lanes
Deftly avoiding the pitfalls of nostalgia, Fruit Bats' Gold Past Life takes stock of life from the vantage point of middle age and charts a path forward with hope and no little circumspection, without once feeling sorry for itself.
Gold Past Life
21 June 2019
Gold Past Life is the eighth Fruit Bats album in almost 20 years. It is also, according to the band's new label Merge, "the end of an unintentional thematic trilogy" (whose other pieces were E.D. Johnson's 2014 solo album EDJ and the band's Absolute Loser from 2016) that "encompassed years of loss, displacement, and the persistent low-level anxiety of the current political climate". We should take this statement at face value and with the appropriate amount of empathetic compassion, while also acknowledging that for the listener there also seem to be other issues (both emotional and musical) in play on this excellent and quite infectious new work.
Above all, this album feels like a series of meditations on who we were when we were young, who we have become now that we are older, what might have happened in between, and what we do with all of that baggage as we begin to slide down the other side of the mortality mountain. To think about what is behind us and what is in front of us at a certain point in life can be a decidedly mixed blessing, and Gold Past Life approaches that mixed blessing with no little grace and poignant equanimity.
The album also appears to stage this meditation using the vehicle of a series of musical pastiches that appear to evoke a nostalgic sound from the youth upon which Johnson seems to be reflecting. This is an awfully smart (and also potentially fraught) move, since it allows us to indulge certain guilty musical pleasures through the joint prisms of a critical nostalgia and an accompanying gentle irony, so that we have a built-in exit strategy when we find ourselves enjoying melodies that sound like bands from whom we may otherwise try to distance ourselves. But more of that in due course, because this album walks a very fine line very elegantly, so we should tread quite carefully around the whole question of nostalgia, lest there be any misunderstanding about what exactly is happening here.
The opening song is "The Bottom of It", and we engage all of the album's central lyrical concerns and musical modes pretty much head-on from the outset. Briefly put, the song's subject matter is middle age, "the autumn of your years", set to a musical arrangement that doesn't sound unlike something you might hear on Al Stewart's Year of the Cat, whose title song, you may remember, spoke of "a country where they turn back time". But far from speaking of middle age from a place of sentimentality, lamentation, or of the past as another country where they do things differently (with all due deference to L.P. Hartley's classic novel The Go Between, whose opening words those are), "The Bottom of It" speaks rather in a tone of triumph and relief that a friend seems to have managed to find his way through the thickets of time "to the clearing in the woods where the weeds sway in the wind". As they lyric has it, "You found yourself, man, and that's something." That is rather more than "something", and indeed the song serves to function as a musical form of the "amulet" mentioned in the first stanza, warding off some of the ennui and other even more pernicious spirits of the aging process. Furthermore, that "clearing in the woods" offers up a version of the ragged pastoral that serves simultaneously as a metaphor for the kind of clarity that comes, after a while, with well-earned middle-aged tranquility and contentment.
And so we immediately find ourselves, as you may already have noticed, in a rather enchanting hall of mirrors, and it is on this understanding that we proceed. The album's title track is front-loaded, and for a good reason. "Gold Past Life", in its title at least, appears to fuse Pavement's "Gold Soundz" and "Range Life", both of which appeared to address, however obliquely (as was their wont), some of the questions of time passing in a musical life that are also being considered here, albeit from a very different perspective. But the similarities end rather abruptly there, because this is, by the band's own admission, their "rustic Bee Gees" moment, as evidenced by the jaunty and quite hilarious falsetto of the chorus, as if evoking the drunken joy of dads letting their hair down for the sole purpose of embarrassing their children.
But the viewpoint on offer here is at some distance from the middle-aged survival contentment of the album opener, adopting something closer to the critical detachment of Springsteen's "Glory Days" in lines like "You know you're never gonna feel as right / Than in your gold past life." That is only to be followed up by the devastating lyrical image of "a ship of paper on a sea of fire" as if our mortality is even more inevitable and even more thoroughly and melodramatically painful than the twinned inevitability of taxes. This song drills deep into the psyche of "Glory Days" and dramatizes it as a lyric that goes way beyond slightly sad sports imagery and to our pathetic inner core with lines like, "You used to stare into the void with the love of your life." It's as if we were all always already doomed to this confrontation with nothingness, and any sense that we had of enduring love or transient triumph were pre-determined to be hollow and deceptive.
And yet, while this might sound utterly depressing, the album mostly wears its sense of mortality quite lightly, thanks to musical arrangements that allow us to enjoy some musical memories (the title song sounds every bit as redolent of 10cc as it does the Bee Gees) in rather more unambiguously joyous fashion. And what's more, there is nothing "rustic" about that Bee Gees pastiche – Fruit Bats are extraordinarily accomplished musicians. We shouldn't forget either that prime mover Johnson also spent a significant time as a member of the Shins between 2006 and 2011, and third track "Drawn Away" feels like a distinct nod in the direction of that sound. All while it continues to mull over the tribulations of encroaching age and inexorable mortality in search of "a place to be reborn", "some light to remind us where we are".
One of the many smart things about this album is that while it sometimes appears to be lost in the past, it is also constantly aware of its place in the current moment. To follow those 1970s-sounding songs with the Shins-referencing "Drawn Away" is a brilliant pivot into the present day, as is the subsequent "Cazadera", whose musical phrasing prompts the listener to an unavoidable comparison with the wonderful and mysterious ways of Phoenix, who have themselves trafficked throughout their careers in idealized versions of prior musical styles. That hall of mirrors we found ourselves in earlier continues to refract and bewilder in some quite dizzying and lovely ways.
But at the same time, while there are plenty of musical rabbit holes to go down here, there are also some little lyrical nuggets to let us know that Johnson seems to be at least partially aware of the various conceits he is peddling, and that we shouldn't necessarily be overthinking any of this stuff. So when he says in "Cazadera", that "sometimes a cloud is just a cloud", we might feel a little bit silly for all the moments of recognition we thought we had experienced in what had gone before. It's at moments like these that you might stop and wonder whose sense of irony is working better, and if you might be just a tiny bit out of your own self-conscious sardonic depth. In any event, whether or to what extent any of this is ironic or tricky, the whole project seems to walk a fantastically deft line that is self-aware without being arch and sincere without being earnest. Those aren't easy things to pull off.
Having said that, there are two quite contrasting moments on the latter stages of Gold Past Life that point up just how fine that line is. Those moments come on "A Lingering Love" and "Mandy from Mohawk (Wherever You May Be)", and they seem to exemplify two sides of the coin that is the consideration of one's past through the prism of musical forms from that same past. "Lingering Love" begins with a slight country tinge and twang (that also recalls so much of the sound of Absolute Loser) as it ponders an abiding affection for a place either from the recent or not so recent past, perhaps a long-time home, perhaps a favorite spot that holds precious memories, or perhaps a childhood home. In any event, there is an indomitability of spirit here that comes through in the determination expressed by "I don't wanna give up" amid the "passing cars and rollin' thunder" (the Dylan reference may also not be accidental). However, what cloys here - and this is one of the very rare moments on the album when the proceedings tip over into overweening winsomeness- there is the inescapable reminder when the chorus hits that this song sounds uncomfortably like Simply Red, and that may be a bridge too far on some people's pastiche trains.
And yet, and yet, all of this is undone, forgiven and forgotten in the redemption of "Mandy from Mohawk", which is unmistakably Johnson's "Girl from the North Country", replete with its Dylanesque vocal. This is an entirely affecting song to a lost love from youth - "wherever you may be, I think of you sometimes." That alone would be moving and effective enough, but it seems like there are other emotional nuances at work here, because Johnson isn't just thinking with affection about a youthful dalliance. He is also continuing to wonder, through the vehicle of this lost love, "exactly what the soul is for", and to express the wish that "everyone should try and find someone to put their arms around looking out the window, watching the wind".
A rather trite moment of nostalgia thus blossoms rather dramatically into a much more profound moment, one that recalls more or less directly Matthew Arnold's Victorian poem of faith and doubt, "Dover Beach", thus setting this entire drama in a quite different context. Here is Arnold in 1867:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Fruit Bats don't reach back this far into history for their reference points, nor do they try to be so high falutin, but when Arnold was writing his by now entirely over-anthologized poem, he was experiencing an unprecedented crisis of religious and cultural faith that he thought could only be overcome by the enduring qualities of love and devotion between two people. So, for all the enemies that may be at the gate, for all the vicissitudes of mortality, faithlessness, fecklessness, and Philistinism, if two lovers stick together, they might be able to fend off those insidious and corrosive energies and spirits.
Those sentiments do not seem at all out of keeping with Fruit Bats' Gold Past Life, and so we return at last to the place we began, and to that "amulet" we found like a gift and a lucky charm in "The Bottom of It". For this is where we end up, at the bottom of it all, looking up and back at our past life and what is left of it. That Fruit Bats manage to take us to these mortal places with so many giddy earworms is a truly impressive achievement.
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