This album arrived just as I was shutting down for a holiday at the end of the year, which might have seen it drift away. But not surprisingly – it is a Glenn Richards album after all – it demands even belated attention as a record that both wraps up a year like no other, and sums up that year’s pricks and engulfing nature.
“A year of plague and penury/How long til it’s a memory?/How long is a piece of string?” Richards asks us at the very start, answering himself later in the song “As long as I say it will/As long as I say.”
Like 2020 itself (well at least for those who had survived the bushfires, were counting the days to a possible end of the Trump years or thought something was on the turn) Fibatty begins with brightness and optimism, joy even. At least musically.
In The Court Of The Cat King moves in little circles of synth and programmed drums, of diffused lead vocal and layered backing vocals, and Lake Drive pushes the ‘80s synth pop boat out a little further with chattering and burbling around the half-buried voice. New Songwriter brings together saloon piano and Turtles-like vocal splashes, while Alive (Until You’re Not) flicks the switch to a quirky Joe Jackson perspective on the soundtrack to a young Tom Cruise/clean Brat Pack film. U R cruises through like a doo wop song slowly warping in the hands of some benign version of Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention, while the mostly instrumental title track shuffles around in its slippers and robe like the Dude abiding in a semi-glazed state of palm trees, White Russians and some mellow weed.
But there are undertones of concern and disquiet. Even as Richards is advising us “Troubles in the soul? Drown them in the bowl”, assuring us that “everything that happens in this world is done by hope” and springing the promise/truth/lie that “You’re alive!”, you begin to wonder why this is so insistent. Is he trying to convince us or himself? And then checking yourself with the question, why do I need convincing?
The “Writer in a room/Working late into the dog afternoon” that we’ve all got, working on our prospects, our plans, our life, here is not doing so well, “drinking all night and sleeping all day/It’s all gone to hell”.
Richards’ tendency to (the wonderfully) baroque in his lyrics is toned down on Fibatty, but the rush of language and imagery and touches of the slightly-out-of-the- tangible have that familiar facility for creating a longer vision, one that slowly accumulates moods until it almost verges on the surreal.
That’s most certainly true in the intersection of lyrical references in Never Be Your Boy (which includes unlikely nods to Lee Hazelwood and Spandau Ballet) but by the time you’ve reached that, the final track, it all seems natural.
To that point, the shift in the second half of the album comes suddenly in a sense, Fibatty’s aforementioned weed-and-vodka haze darkening immediately in Last Aid Kit’s none-more-Cure primary shots of black on black. But when you realise that the title track’s lyrics are repetitions of “Fuck, it’s been a terrible 20 years”, and begin to identify the grasping bastards contained within Last Aid Kit (“So let me get in on this capitalist shit/Bona fide mail order suicide kit”), the segue begins to make sense. Things are slipping beyond us.
From there we find ourselves in a growing swirl comprised of flashes of anger, resignation and avoidance, all in unexpected, contradicting musical robes. My Midi Life connects Italian horror film score and psych folk, Never Be Your Boy is a serenade that might well be Crowded House, albeit with a sting, while Stalker slow marches late ‘70s Manchester and The Cure again, and Backyard Arcana throws a cape of solemn elegance on a Jonathan Richman boyish ruefulness.
It’s attractive but disconcerting for that because so much suggests otherwise, dark-hued but sparkled with light that catches you, engaged but keeping you just distant enough to leave space for questioning. The year that kept shifting the ground beneath us demands nothing less.
How do you make sense of 2020? By not trying to. For really, how could you?