, December 17th, 2013 07:00
Robert Pollard once claimed that he can write five songs on the toilet and three of them will generally be good. Given that he's put out twelve albums in three years he was probably telling the truth about the quantity of his toilet excesses. The quality and consistency of the product remains under dispute however. While with his latest solo album Pollard claims to have finally figured out how to write a song after 55 years, I doubt either critics or fans were holding their breath for a radical change in direction.
It's hard to pinpoint what differentiates a Pollard record from a Guided By Voices one, but the solo songs generally feel like they're fuelled by a bit less beer-chugging and scissor-kicking. In a recent Rolling Stone interview Pollard stated that he tries to act a little more age-appropriate with the solo material. You get the impression that the Pollard records are what he does to stave off the boredom in between GBV recordings, but the shift in his approach and absence of puerility on this record suggests it comes from a slightly more considered place.
Pollard's song-writing never lays claim to transcending its influences, but offers an often surreal and enjoyable bastardisation of them. Some dodgy sources have always filtered through the various vocals he chooses to adopt. These can change drastically, even within the same song, from almost nauseatingly earnest high melodic soars that are unpleasantly reminiscent of Roger Daltry, to the low moody lines evocative of Michael Stipe back when REM fans had the good fortune to have his pretentious drivel partially disguised in mumble. That Pollard could wear such dull, predictable rock & roll hall of fame influences on his sleeve while creating skewed and oddly enjoyable absurdist pop songs has been to his credit. With this record though, he's sounding more like he's trying to be an elder statesman of rock, with less enjoyable results.
There's a particular appeal to Pollard's songs which lies partly with the disparity between the sincerity of his vocal delivery, and partly the comically farcical content of the lyrics. This doesn't mean the puerile lyrics are ironic undercuts of the apparent earnestness of the vocal delivery, nor merely whimsical offerings of 'gee-wizz' zaniness, but rather, sincere celebrations of the anarchic joy of surrealist word play, and singing it like he means it. He's at his best with songs which show that surrealist farce and emotional sincerity are not mutually exclusive.
The striking thing about this record is the relatively unusual (for Pollard) parallels between the lyrics, vocals and music. They all regularly follow tired rock formulas. The openings songs feel like Americana morality tales, Pollard condemning 'Magic Man Hype' and the phonies who don't "walk the true path of light" like the Blazing Gentlemen of the title track. Predictable rockist arrangements don't do much to bolster songs like these.
The clichés are occasionally excusable though for tracks like 'Extra Fools' Day' with Pollard triumphantly declaring in the outro "It's unquestionable, Joy sounds great" over dramatic guitar and drums, sounding like some absurdly joyful finale to his own coming-of-age film. 'My Museum Needs An Elevator' is a standout track that shows he can still pen anthemic tunes with the surrealist sincerity he does so well.
However, the elder-statesman-of-rock shtick dominating the album (and much of Pollard and GBV's recent output) is mostly unconvincing and often dull. Pollard himself could be the Professional Goose Trainer he addresses in the track of the same name. "You want something more priceless" he sings, "but you eat too much, shit too much." His musical diarrhoea has inevitably lead to an increasing sense of disposability. Such criticism is perhaps missing the point in that a relentless haphazard output was always part of the GBV identity, and part of the charm in a sense. However it takes the proliferation of gems found on the likes of Bee Thousand to overshadow (or at least counter) the 'end of (rock) history' amalgamation of influences characterising much of Pollard's song-writing. There are some enjoyable tunes on here that might appeal to the curious who lost track of Pollard and GBV over the years. But the numerous less riveting, just-a-bit-too derivative, run of the mill rock songs will leave even newcomers with the feeling that they've heard it all before.