After 20 years and eight albums, Eric D. Johnson – the artist behind Fruit Bats – should know how to put a record together. Johnson brings in guests to help him fill his vision, and The Pet Parade confirms what we’ve already learned. It’s a run from a perfect opening line to an ideal closing stanza. It’s the sort of album driven by professionalism that, with its generally bright tone and easy melodies, could slide into background listening, but Johnson’s too gifted for that. He brings in some effective collaborators (most notably Bonny Light Horseman buddy Josh Kaufman) for yet another strong album, well-timed for its false-spring release as a cure for the grayness of a long winter.
The album finishes with Johnson’s folkier side (a prominent part of The Pet Parade). He finishes the record by singing to someone, “But you shall be complete / You shall be complete / I decree it so / I decree it so.” Johnson knows that personal peace comes with difficulty, first passing through our insecurities and moving among the pretenses of confidence surrounding us. Fruit Bats, of course, can’t give its listeners peace only through a declaration, but Johnson’s calm voice and acoustic guitar at least provide us with reason to buy into the idea. If we leave the record feeling a little calmer and more assured, the singer’s done his job.
But it takes the rest of the album leading up to that moment for us to believe and understand who Johnson addresses. The “you” of his newest work encompasses anyone listening. Indeed, like “Holy Rose of California”, some of these tracks have a charming specificity that helps them take root. Other songs, though, offer a broader appeal. Johnson takes note of what serves “some people”, of the different sorts of longings or struggles we each have, an approach that allows the warmth of the record’s West Coast feel to turn into an invitation, an evening conversation with anyone who wants to join in.
“Discovering” speaks to anyone who has spent the past year (or more) in survival mode. With casual confidence, Johnson sings, “You should never be ashamed / And try your best not to be too afraid / Walking quiet on your way to be / Making your own discoveries.” He guides from experience, knowing fear but encourages everyone around the fire to see that they’re allowed to take up space and find what they need. The feeling pairs well with “The Balcony”. Johnson takes an interest in others’ self-discovery but never suggests that work should become a solitary endeavor. When he says on “Cub Pilot”, “We’ve been lately feeling like the people we didn’t know we were allowed to be,” he sings with us and not to us, assured of our liberation from our issues, but without rushing to get there.
As he speaks from among his people, he takes his place as a companion. The album opens with a great opener: “Hello from in here to all you out there / It feels like it’s been years.” Johnson could be writing from quarantine, but as the song and the album develop, they suggest that he speaks from a state of mind. “Sometimes it’s trying,” he sings, as we try to find our place, faking it sometimes and authentically joining in at others. Johnson’s Pet Parade isn’t hallucinatory or wishful thinking; it’s a company well found and a challenge well met.