Country music today often conjures up images of trucks, beers, jeans, American flags, fried chicken, etc. You know the drill. So when Johnny Fritz’s latest album opens with the deliciously caustic line “Did you take a break from drinking and find out you have no friends who aren’t sad old brokenhearted losers in the end,” you immediately know you’re in for something special.
A member of the burgeoning alt-country movement, Fritz clearly delights in subverting the genre’s deeply entrenched tropes with absurdist humor and piercing insight. On ‘Sweet Creep,’ he does just that with effortless confidence and consistency.
The song forms here aren’t exactly groundbreaking but Fritz breathes new life into them with his idiosyncratic voice and writing. The rockabilly romp ‘Stadium Inn’ details the characters and activities within the titular lodging, prostitutes and Brokeback Mountain re-enactors included. ‘Humidifier’ features classic honky-tonking but pairs it with some of the strangest expressions of affection committed to tape, namely the desire to bottle a woman’s scent and put it in a humidifier.
The goofy qualities of Fritz’s songwriting do not mask the complexity of the characters that populate his songs, though. ‘I Love Leaving’ opens with the line, “Oh, classical music is so clarinet-y, I love meatballs but don’t like spaghetti, it makes me so tired and I want to be ready, I love being ready to go.” It’s almost cringe-worthy. But the song goes on to examine the classic country/folk subject of rootlessness with unexpected nuance as the narrator eventually reveals an anxious desire to find somewhere to stay and someone to stay with, casting doubt on the supposed pride in his detachment and begging the question: does this guy only move so much because nobody wants him around?
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The most fascinating character study is found in the beautiful ‘Cries After Making Love,’ in which Fritz systematically deconstructs the haughty moral superiority, independence and emotional indifference of an unabashedly hipster girl who “hides her past under her floppy hat.” The fragility that she expertly conceals is completely exposed in the line, “shivering while holding the phone to her breast, she’s glad that you liked her picture.” It’s a brilliant, fully realized portrait, condensed into three minutes.
Throughout ‘Sweet Creep,’ Fritz’s words are bolstered by a crack band comprised of brothers Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith (of Dawes) and Josh Headley. They are appropriately hushed and evocative on the album’s subtler moments but really get to cut loose and shine on barnburners like ‘Humidifier’ and ‘Fifteen Passenger Van.’ With My Morning Jacket’s Jim James producing, the merging of these disparate talents makes for a great and timeless sounding record.
But Fritz doesn’t seem the type to tout his gifts. His songs are devoid of pretension, and as he cracks up during the seemingly endless, mildly irritating refrain to ‘Chilidog Morning’ (“Give the job to Grandma, make her chop the onions”), he seems to suggest that he’s not taking himself too seriously, so listeners ought to do the same. But in ‘Sweet Creep,’ he has constructed an endearingly weird, fun, surprisingly beautiful and sometimes revelatory country album. All without a single reference to fried chicken.