Review: Fred Thomas, 'Changer'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
There's a line on Fred Thomas' last album, 2015's All Are Saved, that perfectly captures his stream-of-consciousness style: "If you see me and I seem too entertaining / I'm not singing, I'm just talking to you." Thomas delivers his songs in a conversational cadence, jamming as much as he can into each line. His sneakily catchy tunes aren't effortless, but it feels as if he's chatting with you on the street — or even talking to himself in the mirror — rather than singing to you from a stage.
Though Thomas has made music since the late '90s, both solo and with his Michigan band Saturday Looks Good To Me, All Are Saved was an artistic and critical breakthrough. After its release, Thomas quit his job, got married, moved from Ann Arbor to Montreal, and began focusing on music full-time. Hence the title of his new album, Changer, and its keen reflections on big decisions and life-altering memories.
Thomas explores the emotions behind those decisions with wry perspective and unsentimental honesty. He's interested in elusive, incomplete feelings — or, as he describes them in "Voiceover," "All those left-behind feelings / Those student-loan feelings / Those DUI feelings / The-phone's-about-to-die feelings." He opens the album with, "There was something I was trying to say / But I kept losing my grip on the slippery meaning," and throughout Changer he chases that meaning, probing his experiences in the hope of figuring them all out.
In "Brickwall," Thomas examines how friends drift with age, waxing nostalgic for an indie-rock era — "Spending your time looking at books about New York from the 1990s / But you know it's not the same anymore" — reflected in his jangly chords. A lament for opportunities lost in "Open Letter" includes a priceless couplet: "Love is always looming, but it's tired of your attention / It feels like an excuse you use to rename old conventions." He's funny, too: In "August Rats, Young Sociopaths," he imagines rats at the end of autumn complaining, "F***, man, can't something be kinda good before it's kinda gone?"
Thomas' rangy musings accompany music that's impressively varied. Some tunes are riffs repeated into mantras; others are sharply crafted melodies that stay with you; some use minimalist electronics to create abstract, wordless atmospheres. Surprising touches add drama: Take the horns during the climax of "Voiceover," the twangy accents of "2008," or the soothing vocal interludes from singer Anna Burch in "Misremembered."
It all serves Thomas' main goal: to look hard at life and explore small moments that stick around longer than you'd expect. During the album's plaintive closer, "Mallwalkers," he asks, "Where you're stoned in your basement, playing games / Hanging out with your dogs / Could it ever be possible to just pause on that feeling?" The answer is probably no, but hearing Thomas capture feelings so well on Changer might convince you otherwise.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.