[2 June 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
As far as I’ve witnessed, the main criticism of Robert Pollard’s post-Guided by Voices work has been laziness. He uses old lyrics, does albums where other people write all of the music and he just sings over it, and he puts out too much music without editing himself. I find the notion of Pollard as lazy antithetical to reality. How can someone who has released four albums already this year, with another double album scheduled, be lazy? Perhaps it’s just that listeners haven’t adjusted to the clear switch in direction he made, in spirit if not style.
Disbanding Guided by Voices was his idea, a career move really; it was never one monolithic band anyway. That decision clearly represented a change in approach: a decision to not strive for that elusive commercial success any longer, an acknowledgement that he was getting too old to ever be considered the next big thing. It was a retirement of sorts, and like my parents, he seems even busier in retirement than he was in his “career”. Once you free yourself from the burden of financial success, you can do all sorts of things for fun. If Pollard’s post-GBV activities have seemed scattered, not as driven towards a particular goal, that makes sense.
The surprising thing about Pollard’s 2011 albums, though, and some of his 2010 ones, is how focused they are. Space City Kicks was the most eclectic and spacey, but in a way that resembled a unified concept. Lifeguards’ Waving at the Astronauts and Mars Classroom’s The New Theory of Everything, both collaborations, were tight collections of pop-rock songs built around a central sound. Now, here’s Lord of the Birdcage. It’s more focused than the others, and most days strikes me as even better, one of the best albums he’s made since Guided by Voices. It’s a strong, melodic rock album, very much in Pollard’s usual terrain, but also less erratic, frivolous, and purposely frustrating than some of his post-GBV work has been. There are mid-tempo songs with great, bittersweet hooks that sneak up on you (“Dunce Codex”), snappy up-tempo songs with the demeanor of “hits” (“Garden Smarm”, “Ribbon of Fat”), dark and weird power sludges with hints of light breaking through (“You Can’t Challenge Forward Progress”, “Silence Before Violence”), big, epic-sounding arena-rock numbers (“Smashed Middle Finger”, “Ash Ript Telecopter”) and a couple gorgeous, brittle ballads (“The Focus (Burning)”, “In a Circle”). Pollard sings quite well, and the music is as crisp and carefully arranged as the later Guided by Voices albums.
The story with Lord of the Birdcage is that Pollard apparently wrote the lyrics as poems first, and then later turned them into songs. Who cares? He could have been doing that all along and I wouldn’t have noticed a difference in the final product. Then again, though mysterious and confusing, the lyrics as a whole might not be as surrealist as usual. A few songs give the impression of daily domestic life, like the songs are from the perspective of a grown man hanging out on his front porch watching the neighborhood. He’s the king of his mansion, the Lord of the Birdcage. Perhaps this way of thinking about the album comes mostly from “Garden Smarm”, with its infectious chorus: “Garden smarm / Hell of a war / Chain the lawnmower / Down for the winter.” That song also carries his hotel reviews (“the ice machine’s a really nice machine”). “In a Circle”, too, refers to “Makeshift Comfort Suites / And 9 o’clock meetings”, while he ruminates on circles. Like “Garden Smarm”, “Ribbon of Fat”, for all its weirdness, seems to take place in a residential neighborhood, perhaps after a kids’ birthday party. “Take good care of your brats,” Uncle Bob tells us. And “Silence Before Violence” begins with “the neighborhood children” making up their own rain dance.
There’s also, as often with Pollard, an inherent distrust of commerce and power structures (“You Sold Me Quickly”), some stirring references to people disappearing (from “Dunce Codex”: “Please excuse me / I’ve lost my girl / And I need to go find her”), biological references (“Ribbon of Fat”) and, on the opening track “Smashed Middle Finger”, a trace of bitterness towards the music industry. The Who-ish song has a great rebellious chorus built on a clever lyrical conceit more than any clear statement. He sings about rocks, sings about smashing his finger on one, and then gets to the punchline, as the song builds to an apex: “I’ve got a smashed middle finger / I want to give to the world!” It’s a classic rock ‘n’ roll expression of general nonconformity and angst which reminds us that the dude sitting on the front porch down the block was a rock star once upon a time.