Though it sounds perfectly natural in the line of succession of Fruit Bats albums, it’s the five-year hiatus proceeding Absolute Loser that makes all the difference.
The album, as cohesive and strong top to bottom as anything frontman Eric D. Johnson has made, gathers its sense of purpose from the sort of self-reflection and search for meaning that caused Johnson to put Fruit Bats on the shelf after 2011’s Tripper.
Johnson’s next step was to start fresh on a new project titled with his initials. And as recognizable as Johnson’s vocals and songwriting sensibilities are, the 2014 EDJ album did sound out of step with the Fruit Bats—darker, more experimental and a little more ramshackle. Ultimately, that record functioned as a palate cleanser rather than a first step toward something new.
Absolute Loser restores the Fruit Bats name, and thankfully this new start doesn’t come with attempts to concoct new tricks, but instead unfolds as a rock-solid example of what Johnson has done best for more than 15 years.
Album opener “From A Soon-to-Be Ghost Town” immediately establishes itself as the new quintessential Fruit Bats song. Like the band’s brightest spots from the past—“When U Love Somebody,” “My Unusual Friend” and “You’re Too Weird” among them—the song is an immediate charmer, a bit breezy and a bit wistful, with a melody that bores in and doesn’t leave.
“From A Soon-to-Be Ghost Town” also introduces the record’s themes, largely centered on how to make peace both within oneself and with the larger world. Throughout Absolute Loser, Johnson explores the intertwined questions of identity and purpose, and the struggles in living a truly self-aware life.
The next track, “Humbug Mountain Song,” jumps sharply off center, led by a sharply coiled banjo groove, as Johnson dives into a narrative that roughly matches the song’s bizarrely captivating video of a man chasing a bear through the woods, aiming to settle some past rivalry.
Other standout moments are the shimmering “None of Us,” the jaunty and mystical “Good Will Come to You,” a charming and jammy ode to Johnson’s Chicago home in “My Sweet Midwest,” and the folksy title track.
The album stacks more of its mellower songs toward the end, trading some of the enthusiastic spirit Johnson brings to Fruit Bats’ return for a finale that sounds thoroughly peaceful.
In the end, anyone who’s tapped feet or nodded along to Fruit Bats in the past will find plenty to embrace with this new batch of familiar, comfortable tunes.