Fred Thomas – Aftering

Fred Thomas has a hard time staying in one place. The Michigan native’s last album, 2017’s Changer, careened between caffeinated, cunning troubadour fare and abstract electronic excursions harboring themes of feeling unmoored – which happened to coincide with the period he had decamped for Montreal with his new wife.

Thomas is back in the States now, but doesn’t sound any more settled. Aftering is a clear sequel to Changer; more precisely, he considers it the end of a trilogy that began with 2015’s All Are Saved. Returning to Athens to work with producer Drew Vandenberg, in many ways he’s refined the approach – and allowed a few more friends into the tent.

Aftering front-loads a series of nearly irresistible indie guitar pop songs that conjure an alternate universe where Paul Westerberg matured a few years sooner (in other words, they resemble early Wilco). Except for the word-stuffed “Altar” these are less frenetic, more accessible and more full-band oriented than Changer’s ditties of that ilk. Best of the batch are the deceptively chipper “Hopeless Ocean Drinker” and “Good Times Are Gone Again,” which recalls The Replacements’ “Unsatisfied.”

From there Aftering takes a sharp and harrowing turn. Side two consists of four lengthy pieces better described as tone poems than songs, with electronics augmented by otherworldly horns and strings. Without his hooks to soften the message, the darkness of Thomas’ lyrics becomes stark. Tracks like “House Show, Late December” are slice-of-life autobiography, and it’s a testament to Thomas’s storytelling skills and personable delivery that the turmoil of “Slow Waves” left me concerned that his newly minted marriage had already run aground (I’m told they’re still together).

Thomas has said that Aftering is loosely modeled after Neil Young’s On the Beach. It’s the sort of claim I normally find pompous but in this case it has some validity, given the despairing tone and A side/B side juxtaposition of both titles.

Thomas has become so good at churning out the pop tunes that they seem effortless – perhaps to a point that he’s craving new challenges (it’s hardly his first change of course – remember this is the same dude who fronted the hyper-twee Saturday Looks Good To Me). He’s got a knack for the pensive stuff too – the only problem is that it’s hard to see both sides of Aftering appealing to the same audience – at least not in the same sitting.

Fred Thomas