Whitmer Thomas will admit that when he traveled home to small town Gulf Shores, Alabama to record his HBO stand-up special, The Golden One, he expected to be greeted as a returning hero, a conquering king, or at minimum, a guy with a moderately successful career as an entertainer in Los Angeles. “I expected a big welcome home, open arms, but when I went back I realized: nobody fucking knows me. Nobody remembers me,” Thomas says. “In the years I’d been performing that show, I’d been romanticizing my childhood in this mythologized place, but the visit made me see that I’m not really from there anymore.”
The sense of alienation compounded when Thomas recognized how few people in town remembered his mom, to whom The Golden One is dedicated and largely about. Thomas grew up watching her perform with her twin sister at the legendary Flora-Bama Lounge, where he set the special, and still counts her as one of his musical influences. His new album, The Older I Get the Funnier I Was, isn’t overtly about his mom, her presence is deeply felt throughout. While in Gulf Shores, Thomas discovered dozens of her old recordings, all of which had been wrecked by Katrina, but upon returning to LA, Thomas paid “a fancy place in Hollywood” to fix the tapes and hired Melina Duterte (Jay Som, Bachelor, Routine) to mix them. The two struck up a collaborative friendship, and as the pandemic forced everyone indoors, Thomas had the sound of his mom’s voice back. “I was listening to songs she recorded when she was about my age, just these heartfelt, sweet Americana songs,” he says. “I decided then that I wanted to lose the Ian Curtis voice I always sing with; I wanted to do what came naturally, because my mom always sounded like herself, even when she was singing some cheesy reggae song about, like, Jamaica.”
If you’ve heard Songs from the Golden One, released by Hardly Art to acclaim after the special premiered, or seen Thomas’ viral lockdown hit “Big Baby,” then you know the voice to which he’s referring: it’s deep, British, melancholic, and a far cry from Thomas’ chirpy speaking voice which he describes as being “like a 12-year-olds.” Nevertheless, he committed throughout the process of writing and recording The Older I Get the Funnier I Was, knowing it was time to retire his darkwave persona, at least for the time being. It makes sense: much of the album chronicles what Thomas calls “being a kid and feeling like you have no control and overcompensating by being annoying.”
“Middle school was a couple haircuts and a Blink poster on my wall/ Drawing the bat signal with a mechanical pencil/ Acting like we were doing heroin/ Turning it into a needle,” he sings on the airy, yearning “South Florida,” accompanied by Harrison Whitford on lap steel. “So much of the album is about witnessing drug and alcohol addiction as a kid and seeing what it does to people, but also realizing that there’s nothing you can do about it,” Thomas says. It’s familiar territory (see: “Partied to Death”) but the methodology feels totally different this time around; true to its title, The Older I Get the Funnier I Was isn’t always looking for laughs.
“Blink-182 is the first band I ever fell in love with and are still my number one inspiration,” Thomas says. “I love that they can have a song on a record about, like, a dog and it’s followed by a song about suicide. I find that so funny.” Funny, and also faithful to the experience of time, as it moves ever onwards in fits and starts between the mundane, the tragic, the ecstatic and rare sublime. Like his heroes Blink, The Older I Get the Funnier I Was surveys a range of emotion, but it offers a broad sonic palette, too, moving between pop punk, electro, and obvious influence of the singer-songwriters he grew up listening to in early childhood. On the acoustic “Stick Around,” Thomas narrates life in Gulf Shores, what he calls a “playset town,” all muddy shoes and rusted old boats, the jetty gone glassy in the waning light. It’s beautiful.
Thomas attributes the dexterity of the record to Duterte, who recorded and engineered most of it in addition to serving up plenty of encouragement when Thomas got down on the process. “As a comic, I used to test out new songs during sets to see if the funny bits were hitting, but since I wrote this in isolation I ended up writing lyrics and worrying less about making jokes,” Thomas says. That said, the album’s plenty funny. Stand-out “Rigamarole” opens with a Thomas-voiced infomercial that recalls his oft-cited lookalike Jim Carrey as the Grinch, before launching into a buoyant pop song about being depressed. It’s followed by the deceptively catchy “Everything That Feels Good is Bad,” a downtempo, anxious laundry list driven by a programmed drumbeat that could soundtrack the bleary early morning drive to the worst job you’ve ever had. “That song is just like, here are some things that are bad. Pretty simple,” Thomas says, laughing.
Subtlety isn’t what Thomas aims for, and while he gives himself a hard time for it (“I wish I could be mysterious, so so badly”) his music joins a lineage of clear-eyed songwriters who eschew gauzy lyricism in favor of telling a coherent story. “The comedian in me won’t allow me to be murky,” Thomas says. “I need to figure out what a song is about before I can even start writing it.” A single listen through of The Older I Get the Funnier I Was conjures the ennui of Bright Eyes alongside the barefaced storytelling of John Prine, the overstuffed lists of Fred Thomas with the lackadaisical humor of Colleen Green, among many others. Hearing this would surprise Thomas who, despite having played the instrument since adolescence, still says he feels like a novice every time he picks up a guitar. It’s a sentiment best expressed by single “Most Likely,” when Thomas articulates the dread that comes with putting new art out into the world. “Imposter syndrome is a bitch when you move in a new direction,” he sings over a chorused guitar melody that suggests he isn’t so alone in that fear.
Soon, Thomas will take these songs on the road as part of a new comedy show, but for now they exist simply as a product of a particularly confusing moment in his life, when home started to feel less like Alabama and more like Los Angeles, and yet he still couldn’t shake the hardwired desire to resurrect childhood, make it somehow cinematic. Thomas might’ve left his hometown behind, but his kid self is still tagging along, a Peter Pan shadow he can’t untether himself from. The first line he sings on The Older I Get the Funnier I Was is: “There should be a room at every party where you can just sit and watch a movie.” Find a 12-year-old who wouldn’t say the same.