Little more than a year ago I found myself fortunate to catch the Bonny Light Horseman – the emerging trio of Anaïs Mitchell, Josh Kaufman, and Fruit Bats’ Eric D. Johnson – on a brief touchdown in London. I’d have backed them then to have a busy and successful year, and anticipated seeing them again soon. How little I then knew.
At a moment when we’re tentatively entering a fresh spring, and hoping to step out into life again, here’s a moment to make acquaintance with two of them as Eric Johnson unveils a new (the ninth) Fruit Bats record for which Kaufman has served as producer. The Pet Parade arrives right on time as a gorgeous, considered collection of love songs to life, capturing fleeting, psychedelic epiphanies in a golden blend of rich pop-hues and indie-folk. Somewhere here there’s a lyric “starry-eyed in stereo” and that captures it well.
While most of these songs were written pre-pandemic they definitely seem appropriate to it. Johnson has spoken of ‘patience in isolation’; a quality which of late has necessarily become a habit of common cultivation; and The Pet Parade was made under lockdown conditions. He and Kaufman muster an array of scattered participants; drummers Joe Russo and Matt Barrick, singer-songwriter Johanna Samuels, pianist Thomas Bartlett, and fiddler Jim Becker; carrying connections to Califone, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, and many more.
The Pet Parade begins with the title track, extending over six minutes, and opens with a greeting; “Hello from in here, to all you out there. It feels like it’s been years, and we’ve all been whispering to anyone who’ll hear”. We can all empathise with the feeling, and the following “and sometimes it’s so trying”, but the song then opens up into a festive mood in which the pet parade – a feature of Johnson’s childhood – serves as a metaphor for the necessary craziness of life in which we’re all “weird in our own ways”.
This sense of reassurance pervades, happily driven by the repeated vocal “here we are”, and this notion of unfolding and revelation in small but blessed happenings; for instance being reduced to tears by the opening phrase from a talking book; will persist throughout making the whole akin to an extended ‘Every Grain Of Sand’. ‘Cub Pilot’ starts as a single life observed and grows outward while ‘Discovering’ seems literally about a resurrection, made manifest with a halt and a restart. Rein is given to a spread of instruments; some marvellous piano, violin, and guitar show themselves while selflessly remaining part of the whole.
‘Holy Rose’ is perhaps as close as we get a set-piece as California mythos collides with the concrete fact of the drastic Sonoma fires of 2017; similar drama perhaps in the rush of ‘The Balcony’ while ‘Here For Now For You’ is another love song reaching towards universality and ‘Eagles Below Us’ grows into a paean to ecstasy.
The final, triumphant three songs present as a recapitulation; ‘All In One Go’ with teasing melodica and piano acknowledges a time when “it’s hard to tell dreams from remembering”, before ‘Gullwing Doors’ chimes and soars in its declaration of universal potential. Lastly comes the resolution of ‘Complete’; where voice and guitar deliver a benediction in the face of uncertainty and insecurity; “You shall be complete; I decree it so”. The Pet Parade telling us that while our own worlds may be small they are always ours and ever worthy of celebration.
The Pet Parade is available now on Merge Records