A crescendo leads to a folk guitar riff. “It’s hard to be the last one in a soon-to-be ghost town/ When all that you’ve loved is now gone.” It’s been five years since the last Fruit Bats album, and three years since they announced their breakup with an essay on their website titled “Moving On”. Now Fruit Bats are back, with Eric D. Johnson’s pristine vocals and thoughtful ballads leading the group home to their sonic identity on Absolute Loser.
Throughout their discography, Fruit Bats have consistently shifted their sound. Their 2001 debut, Echolocation, emerged with rustic production, while Mouthfuls followed with thought-provoking wonders like “When U Love Somebody”, which years later still remain just as haunting as their first listen. The timeless 2009 concept album The Ruminant Band is a career highlight, impeccably weaving mesmerizing ’70s vibes and folk storytelling. Tripper, the final album before their hiatus, brought in uncharacteristically glittering backdrops, yet retained their swooning, familiar songwriting core.
Their return, Absolute Loser brings the best of Fruit Bats’ diverse discography together. Here, we find a mashup of every bit of their journey: the stunning harmonies, Johnson’s voice ringing out, evocative stories, and an immediately nostalgic sound. Plus, the production is at its most polished, beautifully framing folk ballads that resonate and resonate.
Fruit Bats abandoned the glistening approach of Tripper in favor of purer folk. The sweet “Humbug Mountain Town” is peppered with banjo riffs, adding to the Americana feel and drifting back through time. Johnson can sing lines that would sound completely cheesy when sung by anyone else and spin them into wise sincerity. “You oughta be careful when putting your heart out there/ Because some people are bound to be mean,” he croons on the opening line of “None of Us”. The song continues with those classic Fruit Bats guitar interludes, the kind they’ve been doling out since their late ’90s Chicago origins.
On the immensely repeatable title track, a fuzzy intro leads into more classic Fruit Bats. “Still seasick and waiting for the storm to break/ An absolute loser on the verge of something great,” Johnson calls out in that self-deprecating, endearing cry. The backdrop is lush and lilting, and the song serves as the band’s redemption. They’re back, putting a twist on their original sound that has seen decades go by and yet still remains fully realized. As it continues, the backdrop takes center stage, a sitar riff giving off a dreamy warmth.
Elsewhere, “Baby Bluebird” recalls a fusion of Led Zeppelin’s most vulnerable works and George Harrison’s spiritual ballads. Johnson’s voice peaks to a falsetto, his lyrics speaking to the heartbreak of loving the idea of someone rather than the reality. These ballads feel as if they were plucked from records released decades before, dusted off, and shown to the world anew. The outro glimmers and glides away, cementing this as the most stunning song on the entire album. “Birthday Drunk” continues these deliciously sweet lyrics, while orchestral infusions, piano, and a shift from major to minor chords keep this song interesting and fresh.
That said, some track don’t carry enough of a twist. The repetitive “My Sweet Midwest” pales in comparison to the caliber of the rest of the album, while the lyrics to “Good Will Come to You” are steeped in clichés that not even Johnson’s delivery can save, albeit surrounded by interesting synths.
Absolute Loser isn’t an experimental, mind-blowing fusion of genres. It doesn’t veer away from Fruit Bats signature sound. Instead, it serves to remind us that Fruit Bats have grown their sound, cultivated it, broken it, and rebuilt it, yet the core remains the same. There’s pure Americana at the very heart of it, and that’s something worth preserving.
Essential Tracks: “Baby Bluebird”, “From a Soon-To-Be Ghost Town”