America’s having a collective rose-colored glasses moment across ideological fault lines. Folks can’t help staring in the rear view with wistful gaze, longing for the good old days, whatever that means from person to person; the Obama administration years, maybe, or the white-bread era of the 1950s-60s, before, say, the Voting Rights Act passed into law. In any conceivable case, those “good old days” are only better in the eyes of the beholder. That’s the nature of over-sentimentality.
Gold Past Life, the eighth album from Chicago’s Fruit Bats, doesn’t necessarily reference this self-deluding dynamic—it’s less political and considerably more personal than that, which is a relief for listeners with a severe intolerance for aggressively forced political metaphors. But looking backward remains key to the record’s heart regardless. Frontman Eric D. Johnson’s lyrics settle on reminiscence, whether about time and place (“Drawn Away”) or about the dearly departed (most obviously on “Your Dead Grandfather,” but also on “Barely Living Room”). Pining over the aforementioned good old days means pulling wool over one’s own eyes. Pining over your childhood homes or the hospital where you emerged from your mom’s womb, makes for a very different kind of existential anguish.
Listen to the deceptively upbeat “Drawn Away,” a cheery strummer of a song so written through with sunshine that if you blocked out the lyrics, you’d assume it’s genuinely meant to be happy. “Drawn away from every place we’ve ever lived / Drawn away from every life we’ve led,” Johnson belts on the chorus with lighthearted gusto that belies just how unbelievably goddamn depressing it is to grow up and leave behind the worlds we once knew as kids. Grant that this experience—the long sojourn away from home, from self, from youth—is universal. Everyone goes through it. That doesn’t make the track less of a stealthy king bummer.
For the most part, Johnson’s writing generalizes that “time and place” theme, except for the few instances where he invokes the Great Lake State: On “Two Babies in Michigan,” of course, and on “A Lingering Love.” “Oh to be where the weather’s wetter / With a stomach settled / And a mouthful of great lake,” he laments on the intro. That ode to Michigan, where the Wisconsin-born Johnson grew up (at least partly), extends into other tracks; the more specific the songs are, the more clearly his lyrics read to the ear. Where else could “Mandy from Mohawk (Wherever You May Be)” have happened but Michigan? Sure, Route 41 runs from there all the way down to Florida, and sure, there are other Episcopal Churches named St. Peter’s By-the-Sea, but Johnson is not being coy about the church he’s thinking of and which stretch of highway his words refer to.
The effect of tracks “Mandy from Mohawk (Wherever You May Be)” and “Two Babies in Michigan” is to establish Gold Past Life as an album about Michigan, even when it isn’t directly about Michigan at all. But Johnson’s doleful nostalgia and his fixation on death renders his retrospection somewhat morbid. Gold Past Life, is littered with specters, whether on “Two Babies in Michigan” (“Still broke as a joke / With no clear way to cure it / Back down on the boulevard / Floating around like a spirit”), “Your Dead Grandfather” (“We’ve been told there’s a ghost in the sky / Who pushes the button for the snow”), or “Barely Living Room” (“In a flat fescue meadow / Frozen dead by the cold / In the clothes of a ghost”). If Gold Past Life’s musicianship wasn’t so uniformly lively, the whole record might just read as morbid.
Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe looking backwards, agonizing over the past, is an exercise in futility and self-inflicted torment. It hurts, thinking about what once was. So Gold Past Life wraps that sobering truth up in animated pop rock, an element of sweetness to make the darkness go down a little easier, occasionally opting for melodic and acoustic-driven sounds instead (“Ocean”). The contrast between style and intent has an amusing effect on the listening experience; Gold Past Life’s material spans years, but the record breezes by its 39-minute duration. Time flies when you’re mulling over your life choices.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.