One of the most celebrated under-the-radar folk-pop acts of the past 20 years, Fruit Bats—aka Chicago-born, Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter Eric D. Johnson—makes a rare Vermont appearance on Friday at ArtsRiot in support of a new album.
“Gold Past Life,” released in June, is Johnson’s eighth album under the Fruit Bats moniker, and his first for esteemed indie label Merge Records. The album is a follow-up to 2016 standout “Absolute Loser,” a triumphant return to both name and form for Fruit Bats, which Johnson disbanded in late 2013 — much to the dismay of fans and critics alike — following the loss of his wife’s pregnancy.
After releasing a solo album in 2014, simply titled “EDJ,” which he described as “the outpouring of grief” from the experience, Johnson decided to embrace the Fruit Bats moniker. He says in press materials that “Gold Past Life” marks “the end of an unintentional thematic trilogy” that “encompassed years of loss, displacement and the persistent, low-level anxiety of the current political climate.”
“I wrote music to comfort myself,” says Johnson, 43, about the past five years. “It was a soothing balm.”
“Gold Past Life” finds Johnson hitting his stride as one of the best and most under-appreciated songwriters around. Quite possibly his most assured release to date, the album shines on the strength of Johnson’s simple yet pretty compositions and his uncanny knack for marrying breezy and infectious pop with poignant melancholia. All of which is buoyed by a refreshing honesty and lingering hopefulness that’s both pleasing and uplifting.
Loping opener “The Bottom Of It” is a stellar tune about taking stock in yourself, while the title track takes on idealized nostalgia with a vintage blue-eyed soul vibe. Other standouts celebrate the process of grounding yourself in the present, both geographically and spiritually.
Album centerpiece “A Lingering Love” is a joyous ode to a place in time. “Cazadera” is a sultry and warm confessional about embracing the moment. “Ocean” is a stripped-down gem of a tune that showcases Johnson’s magic touch and affecting falsetto voice. And “Dream Would Breathe” is one of the most beautiful love songs in years.
“Nostalgic throughout, yet often more affectionate than bittersweet,” said the All Music Guide, “‘Gold Past Life’ represents another consistently strong set from Johnson, one with melodies and sentiments that linger.”
And Variety called it “one of the best-written albums of the year,” adding: “As good as the album sounds … it’s as a lyricist where Johnson is really peaking here. There won’t be many albums in 2019 with as many quotable, cut-to-the-marrow lines as this one has.”
With “Gold Past Life,” Johnson says he hopes to share an overall sense of positivity and hope with a wider audience. “Fruit Bats makes existential make-out music,” he says half-jokingly. “But you’re also welcome to dive into it deeper if you want. Good pop music should be sublime like that.”
Johnson is also a member of a new band called Bonny Light Horseman — performing Feb. 8 at Higher Ground — a three-piece indie-folk “supergroup” featuring singer-songwriter extraordinaire Anaïs Mitchell and multi-instrumentalist/producer Josh Kaufman (The National, Hiss Golden Messenger).
Formed last year during a residency at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival, the premise of the project involves putting a new spin on traditional folk songs from the British Isles. Bonny Light Horseman’s eponymous debut album is scheduled for release in January.
Opening for Fruit Bats at ArtsRiot is rising Nashville-based, Texas-born singer-songwriter Andrew Combs, performing in support of a new album, “Ideal Man,” released in September on New West Records.