The sunny opening of Absolute Loser gives few hints to the darker side underneath it. Eric D. Johnson, who has written and recorded under the name Fruit Bats since 1997, had suffered through a miscarriage with his wife, and decided in a period of grief to retire the Fruit Bats moniker entirely in 2013. After a farewell show in Portland, Johnson went to work producing an album by Michigan folk group Breathe Owl Breathe, and then his own solo electronics-based record, EDJ.
Absolute Loser is Johnson’s return to recording under the Fruit Bats name, with the familiar elements we love about the band: irrespressible and seemingly simple melodies built on layers of guitars, keyboard, pedal steel and bobbing beats. Some of the songs (“Baby Bluebird”) take you straight to the heart of Johnson’s grief. Others are less straightforward. But knowing a little of where Johnson has been, you can’t hear lyrics like the chorus to “From a Soon-to-be Ghost Town” (“And how you didn’t want to leave / ‘cause you liked the air… And you still don’t wanna leave / ‘cause you loved it there“) without feeling what it means to revisit the emotional terrain of a major loss. Johnson sweeps up the moment in a buoyant flush of guitar and piano. It’s the opening song to a stunning record, one that won’t leave your head (or your headphones) any time soon. Fruit Bats is back, and that’s a very good thing.
Absolute Loser comes out next week, May 13th, and Fruit Bats will play Pickathon August 5-7 at Pendarvis Farm.