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.”
“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.
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.