[Merge; 2021]

“I’m still really excited to make records,” said Eric D. Johnson about The Pet Parade, the ninth album from his indie project Fruit Bats. Hearing musicians say these things is both reassuring and — for music fans of a certain age — a little discomforting. Think about his word choice: still. This year, Fruit Bats celebrate the 20th anniversary of debut album Echolocation. Two years later, they’d release Mouthfuls, their first for Sub Pop, and while it’s true Fruit Bats never reached the heights of the label’s other acts from the era (2003 alone saw the release of The Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow and The Postal Service’s Give Up), they’ve nonetheless built a solid catalog of music that has varied in style yet never in enthusiasm. When Johnson says he’s excited, there’s every reason to believe him.

It also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see Fruit Bats try yet another stylistic approach on The Pet Parade. The album’s title track, which doubles as its opener, glides between two chords while wielding an orchestra’s worth of instruments — guitars, organs, fiddle, and flute — to create a pretty, pastoral picture. Gone are 1970s AM radio throwbacks from 2019’s Gold Past Life, or the jangling tunes of 2009’s The Ruminant Band: never have Fruit Bats sounded so serene.

Producer Josh Kaufman (who’s worked with mainstays like The Hold Steady, The National and recent favorite Cassandra Jenkins) has sought to pull the fullest potential out of each of the album’s 11 songs. The piano and guitar arrangements on tracks like “Cub Pilot” soar yet sound effortless. The string synths and gritty electric guitar lines that max out “Holy Rose” may remind listeners of another recent and equally assured return, The Besnard Lakes Are The Last Of The Great Thunderstorm Warnings. Only on a few songs does the album bear some weak spots, the most obvious being “Here For Now, For You”; with its under three-minute runtime and lack of evolution, the song feels like an obvious breather.

Overall, however, Johnson and company sound completely comfortable throughout The Pet Parade, as if they’re working from a home-field advantage. To a certain extent, that’s true: Johnson is still the introspective songwriter he’s always been. On album highlight “The Balcony” he sings about the observations seen from his grandmother’s balcony (“And they tore up the plains / To make way for a new tollway”), and the inevitability of what’s to come (“And yeah soon the drought will become a flood”). The endearing enjoyment of “Eagles Below Us” rests on Johnson’s fluttering falsetto and impeccable harmonies. It’s easy to imagine this song stripped of its atmosphere and finding a home anywhere else in the band’s catalog. 

Yet, as listeners move through The Pet Parade, a definitive theme becomes clear: the wear and tear of ageing. Johnson sings about the emotional toll of avoidance and self-deception on the glistening ballad “On The Avalon Stairs”: “But it’s so hard to promise ourselves / That we won’t lie to ourselves,” he offers in the chorus, delivering the lines with more aching assuredness each time. His perspective is perhaps strongest on the somber country-flavored “Discovering”, where he describes a washed-up musician whose career wasn’t marked by creative breakthroughs (“And only a few minor epiphanies”) or lasting impact (“Your songs will not be played by symphonies”). Importantly, his words aren’t filled with longing or sadness, but with empathy.

Empathy also played a role in the writing of these songs; “Cub Pilot” and “Here For Now, For You” had their perspectives changed from “I” and “you” to “we” and “us”. Yes, the changes were made in direct response to the pandemic, to be more inclusive of perhaps the most universal experience in recent memory (the band members also recorded their parts alone in bedrooms and home studios); yet, over 20 years in, it’s clear that showcasing experience is where Fruit Bats shine. For some bands, turning to orchestrations and bearing perspective on their sleeves may be a sign of overcompensation. With Fruit Bats, they’re signs of confidence.

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