[9 April 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sure, it might be unfair to call Robert Pollard’s recent output a resurgence, or a return to form, or some other term that implies a temporary dropoff. But if we take a trip back to 2004, when Guided by Voices put out their last record, we also got the first post-GBV solo album, Fiction Man. That is a document of all the habits Pollard had to break to get where he is. The canned production, the uneven energy of his vocals, even the songwriting—since most of those songs were cast off Guided by Voices material—all showed a man that was trying to stretch out, and was instead being stretched thin.
But what’s happened since, and what is apparent on the new and excellent We All Got Out of the Army, is that Bob Pollard absolutely needed to leave Guided by Voices behind. There’s a fatigue in a lot of that mid-2000s material that he has shaken off in favor of a new focus to his music. He’s found a new rock band in Boston Spaceships and, on his solo material, a new one-man band in Todd Tobias. With those new additions in hand, a glut of fantastic Pollard material has followed.
This particular album culls the strength of some of his other recent releases and melds them into a stronger collection. The solid consistency of The Crawling Distance mixes here with the frenetic exploration of the disjointed Elephant Jokes. Over 17 tracks, Pollard and Tobias give us proggy, sprawling pop, crunching rock, hazy pop, lo-fi acoustic numbers, among other sounds. Each song is full of the catchy irreverence we’ve come to expect from Pollard over the years. Right out of the gate, on the super-infectious “Silk Rotor”, he rattles off delightful nonsense such as the comparison “…like cockblockers at a cracker dance at a wingtip free-for-all”. I can’t tell you what it means, but it’s pretty tough not to grin every time you hear it.
But on top of his kooky strings of imagery—look no further than tracks titled “Poet Bums” and “On Top of the Vertigo” for Pollard’s wordplay in top form—there are moments of genuine emotion here, moments that are becoming more prevalent in his new records and give them an added depth that help these songs resonate. When Pollard belts out, at the end of “I Can See”, “I can see, and I’m fighting back the tears”, it feels like more than effect. Pollard builds the slow stomp of the song to this emotional crescendo, and it pays off in a way some of his goofier songs don’t.
The closing “Faster to Babylon” provides an interesting insight into Pollard’s approach these days. It’s a brooding acoustic number, and Pollard is downtrodden and mumbling through the start. The song eventually expands into a prog-haze, but before that Pollard says, “This will not be the title track, though we thought maybe it should.” It’s a curiously self-aware line, but it also outlines exactly what Pollard’s doing right. “Faster to Babylon” is a sad moment, confronting a darker side that we don’t tend to see from the Miller Lite-swilling jokester that fronted Guided by Voices. But this more reflective moment is not the title track. It’s not the frame for this album. Because while Pollard confronts some real emotion—it’d be easy to tie it to mortality, but it seems murkier than that—We All Got Out of the Army is, in the end, still about shaking it off and having a hell of a time with some rock music.
So, we’re not quite all the way to Non-Fiction Man with Pollard, but he’s putting himself out there a lot more these days, blurring the line a bit between man and performer. The success he finds comes in doing all that without losing his energy or sense of discovery. Just soak yourself in the childlike charm of “Your Rate Will Never Go Up” or the dripping riffs on “Talking Dogs”, and you’ll see what’s becoming the norm once again: Robert Pollard whipping us up into his gonzo world of pop music. Where nothing quite makes sense, but somehow you still know what it all means. And that feeling that comes free with admission is the feeling pop music is supposed to give you.