The post-election conclusion of Fred Thomas’s trilogy is an anxious ice-bath

Sunday, September 16, 2018 - 4:05pm

Fred Thomas

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Polyvinyl

When I stumbled on All Are Saved in early 2015, approaching my high school graduation, I was certain I didn’t think I would be writing this review almost four years later. My graduation from university is now more imminent than is comfortable. I remember vacationing in Folly Beach, S.C. during spring break, the same week that Carrie & Lowell was released to the world at large. I was just beginning to find music for myself, exploring Stereogum, Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound and NPR and digesting every word as gospel.

One morning during that week of vacation, I was seeking out new music on Pitchfork and found it: Fred Thomas’s All Are Saved, with a clean little “8.0” next to the album cover. I had recently paid my enrollment deposit to the University of Michigan, and a line in the first paragraph of the review read “Fred Thomas is always standing right behind you at a basement show in Ann Arbor.” Some quick research revealed that Thomas had been a mainstay of the southeast Mich. scene for over 20 years by then — 25 by now. Although I had only been to town a couple of times then, I was more than prepared to make Thomas’s music mine, something literally close to home that I could latch onto.

All Are Saved was Thomas’s ninth solo album, but the first to receive any real critical attention. Changer, a more guitar-driven effort with hints of power-pop, arrived in early 2017, falling into a neat narrative surrounding Thomas’s life: He had gotten married, quit his job and moved to Montreal where his wife would be getting her graduate degree. Now, Aftering has been pitched as the end of an informal trilogy, in part nonspecific reflections penned from abroad — Thomas watching from the outside as his home country elected Trump — and in part hyper-personal anecdote.

The best way to think about the concept of Aftering is as a long walk off a short pier. Or a dead sprint straight off the edge of a cliff, followed by a careful narration of the seemingly endless fall. The first five songs on the album, especially “Hopeless Ocean Drinker,” “Good Times Are Gone Again” and “Altar,” are pure melody, catchy guitar and keyboard hooks under Thomas’s sometimes endearingly off-key vocals. The album opener, “Ridiculous Landscapes,” features the Montreal-based Common Holly and Detroit-based Anna Burch, whose music Thomas forwarded directly to Polyvinyl, earning her a contract. Both will be joining Thomas for a fall tour.

Following the rush of “Altar,” things go downhill quickly — imagine the rug pulled out from under your feet, only to reveal that there was no floor beneath it. “House Show, Late December” is the embodiment of that immediate anxiety, the plunge into the lake waiting at the end of the pier. It’s a steamroller that builds and builds as Thomas just talks at you, only a hint of sing-song in his voice. Thomas’s nostalgic musings removed, the song could easily pass as something by Explosions in the Sky. The last three songs follow suit. If “House Show” is the plunge, the rest of the album is the realization of how damn cold that water is, how slow things move, the tragedy of youth and memory and growing up. It’s half-conscious confusion and sharp self-awareness in equal measure, all over fuzzed out electronics, keyboard and carefully orchestrated strings. 

When I interviewed Thomas earlier this year, I asked him if he could name a number of artists or albums that have influenced or continue to influence his writing. He responded saying that, though it may sound pretentious, his inspirations are largely just his experiences (though he has uploaded a playlist to Spotify titled “Aftering Mood Board”) and it’s evident that this is more or less true. “Alcohol Poisoning” and “House Show, Late December” function in concert as reflections on the difficulties of touring and the anxiety that accompanies being a local artist who is trying to get by on their art alone, spoken from the mouth of the ultimate lifer. Meanwhile, “What The Sermon Said” dives deep into Thomas’s childhood. He recalls the child miscreant he was, and how he couldn’t make friends his own age, and how his family never went back to that church.

“Mother, Daughter, Pharmaprix” includes an anecdote about a mother and daughter arguing in French: the daughter who “simply hates her / With that blinding burning meanness only teens get / Like she has to / Like her mom did to her mom / Like we all do,” and the mother who “loves her so much that she’s constantly terrified.” Thomas’s storytelling here is at its best: He takes a simple interaction and teases something like objective truth out of it. He can’t speak the language but he understands the subtext all too well; we weren’t there, but we can see it in ourselves. This, it seems, is Thomas’s ultimate goal, and one he approaches with an alarming urgency: to find solidarity, connection and empathy in the days when good times are gone again.