Guided By Voices
The Bears For Lunch
, November 27th, 2012 06:54
Tucked away in the liner notes, near the songwriting credits and stashed behind the copyright symbol, is the name of a band's publishing company, part of the necessary infrastructure for the collection of licensing fees that then, as royalty payments, keep bands in shoes. For Bob Pollard, that company is the appropriately named Needmore Songs. In 2012, the legendarily prolific songwriter pushed the Needmore roster passed the 1,500 mark as he released not one but three full length albums under the Guided By Voices banner: January's Let's Go Eat The Factory, June's Class Clown Spots A UFO, and now November's The Bears For Lunch.
When Matador Records held their 21st anniversary concert in 2010, it was the beloved "classic lineup" of the band that originally split in 1996 that they coaxed out of retirement. What was originally to be a one-off performance beget a year-long reunion tour.
On that tour, the band stuck largely to the mid-90s portion of the back catalogue. Pollard supped deep in between the leg kicks and deft microphone twirls that have become his on-stage trademark. Greg Demos squeezed into his familiar striped pants. Co-songwriter Tobin Sprout once again provided the calm, delicate counterbalance to Pollard's reckless excessiveness. Yet for all the reminders of the past, there persisted a subtle disconnect between the old fans, there to cash a cheque written against their teens and twenties, and the band on stage. In the hands of the recently reunited, each song was an anthem to a time since passed. Even originally poignant tracks like 'Queen of Cans and Jars' or 'Don't Stop Now' were transformed into rousing sing-alongs. Not that it mattered. The performance remained recognizable enough to allow fans to reinhabit old memories for the night, despite their sentimentality going unrequited.
The first album of new material since the reunion, Let's Go Eat The Factory, was a bit more problematic, blurring the line that marks where nostalgia begins and ends. The second? Well, that erased the line altogether. With The Bears for Lunch, it has become clear that these albums are not mere mementos to append to the goodwill generated by the reunion but the beginnings of another chapter. Like the component pieces of Pollard's collages that tend to adorn the group's album covers, this post-reunion version of the band has been dislocated from its original meaning and reassembled into something distinctly new. Gone is the nuance and occasional vulnerability of the classic albums. Instead, as on 'King Arthur The Red', the leadoff track on The Bears for Lunch, the gestures are grander and simpler, full of sinewy, muscular hooks that seem more appropriate for a distant stage than a garage or a bedroom.
The best songs on The Bears For Lunch are the ones where the band's sense of entitlement is most convincing. 'Hangover Child' is the defiant, cocksure lead single, its bass line ascending triumphantly in the chorus. The chorus-free 'She Lives In An Airport' is bouncy and restless, world-weary and arrogant. Even 'You Can Fly Anything Right', which features Pollard and an acoustic guitar buried in pointed low-fidelity, keeps its distance behind a facade of self-assuredness that allows for just enough ambiguity.
Still, too often the new toughness comes off as emotionally flat. 'The Challenge is Much More' attempts to portray an individual subsumed by nationalism, but the humanising details get lost, awash in distortion and pedestrian drums. 'Amorphous Surprise' is anything but, a needling, repetitive throwaway. Even at just two minutes, it does something previously unheard of for Guided by Voices – it goes on too long.
The classic lineup isn't going to produce another Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand, and excising those expectations is essential to moving past the hollow, unrewarding pall of nostalgia. As Pollard sings on 'Cyclone Utilities' from Let's Go Eat The Factory, "Not every voice / Needs to be heard / Noble experiments / Spark positive reactions." The burst of creativity and songwriting that came out of the reunion has its plus side, but it's by no means the necessary listening the band once was. Like Pollard, we too Needmore songs, and in realising that he's moved on, so can we.