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Fred Thomas - Aftering Music Album Reviews

The Michigan indie rocker’s final album in a trilogy is a despairing look at the world and the life of a songwriter told with great wit, melodies, and self-deprecation.

On “Good Times Are Gone Again,” the first single from Fred Thomas’ new album, nobody’s talking about how incredible their summer’s been. Maybe they had an incredible summer, but they’re sure not gonna talk about it—what an insult that would be to everyone else suffering from this pervasive American malaise that makes enjoying a tall glass of lemonade seem like a willful act of ignorance. Because it’s 2018, we have to assume it’s probably about Donald Trump. Because it’s a Fred Thomas song, he sings “bad things are happening now,” because bad things are always happening to anxious, depressed people in his music, often himself. The song certainly could’ve appeared on All Are Saved and Changer, two albums written before the election that, with Aftering, form a kind of thematic trilogy. You know that famous Isaac Bashevis Singer quote about how if you keep saying things are going to be bad, you have a good chance of becoming a prophet? By that metric, Thomas is a modern-day Nostradamus who’d quit the job if he wasn’t so damn good at it.

The press release claims Aftering is loosely modeled after Neil Young’s bummer classic On the Beach, split between an emotional burnout’s last flares and long, desolate stretches of watching the smoke clear. Thomas teased it as, “Basically all of my deleted tweets and drafts I was too fearful to publish, just in song form” I’d say he’s got a better grasp of his music’s appeal. The word “aftering” is an apt coinage for the process Thomas has undergone over the past five years—reliving past mistakes with no intent to learn from them, breathing life into stale grudges and resentments, hitting “send tweet,” picking whatever poison that provides some modicum of immediate relief before dealing with how it made things much worse, just like it always does.

Aftering is naturally the most hungover record of the trilogy, even more so than the one where Thomas threatened to hunker down in his apartment and drink a whole case of beer out of spite. And so much of it takes place on the most hungover day of the year: “January 1st, no one’s waiting for a shift in eras/No one’s waiting for the anxiety to dissipate because we all feel it daily,” Thomas sings halfway through the queasy eight-minute drunkalog, “House Show, Late December.” The narrator on “Alcohol Poisoning” flips the calendar with a three-day hangover while clinging to the saddest lie an addict can tell you: “I’m never doing this again.” “When you tried to make yourself puke/Well, it was no use/It was already in your bloodstream,” he taunts on the very next song, helpfully titled “Hopeless Ocean Drinker.” In the progression of addiction, we’re past the “fun with problems” stage and right into “problems.”

The tuneful first half of Aftering could blur this distinction, but Thomas’ chipper melodies add insult to injury, a mocking reminder of what it felt like to get your hopes up in the first place. They can also inspire a feeling of actual injustice—how is it fair that a principled, respected indie rock lifer spends the most celebrated stretch of his career going into brutal, granular detail about playing another half-empty show and living check-to-check? Then again, this is the unique power source of Thomas’ music, accessing raw nerves to transmit these paralyzingly visceral feelings of bitterness, envy, and self-negation that most artists can’t bring themselves to admit and most listeners would rather turn a “shut up and play” deaf ear.

On “Slow Waves,” a sleep-deprived Thomas speaks with grim resignation about “two shows outside of Philly that will pay my rent completely,” grateful for the opportunity but also not finding himself all that far removed from the hand-to-mouth existence of his first real tour with Aloha in 2000. “28 shows in 31 days/three hundred $1 bills in the band fund/U-Haul trailer dragging uphill,” Thomas recalls on “House Show” with a glimmer of nostalgia before fast-forwarding through nearly two decades of the “high fructose corn syrup corner stores,” “blunt wrap bodegas” and now, the depanneurs of his new home in Montreal: “17 years later, I’m still in the same jail/I’m still sending out these cassette tapes in the mail.”

As a final chapter, Aftering promises some kind of resolution, maybe something approaching hope. But the closing “What the Sermon Said” offers no big reveal: Thomas recalls his parents taking him to a new church when he was 8 in a desperate and futile attempt to introduce him to new friends. Afterward, the family eats in awkward silence and Aftering becomes the most heartbreaking album to end in an Arby’s.

Aftering’s second half of ambient tone poems puts Thomas in direct comparison with guys he’s been tangentially evoking over the span of the trilogy: Mark Kozelek and Phil Elverum, mercurial, prolific songwriters who made sharp pivots to pure logorrhea and somehow vaulted to higher levels of critical and popular acclaim than ever before. The irony here is after years of being perhaps too stubborn, too scattered, or too cynical for the aughts indie stardom that he deserved, Thomas might be too accessible, idiosyncratic and relatable in this mode to have his Benji or A Crow Looked At Me. The trilogy began with Thomas’ dog dying and ended up with him eating curly fries; in between, he vented about famous friends, old girlfriends, Olympia street punks, watching Sonic Youth videos, and working at American Apparel. None of it was meant to generate bigger points about the way we live or the way we die, it’s just the way we get by.

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