If you’ve been keeping an eye on Robert Pollard as of late, you know a few things. First, you know he’s not slowing down his level of production, so monumental that “prolific” really isn’t an adequate adjective. Secondly, you know his level of consistently great pop records has a reached a level not seen since Guided by Voices were at their peak. And last but not least, you know that he’s got the “classic” line-up of Guided By Voices back together and out on the road.
Space City Kicks asks of you to keep all of these things in mind. For one, it falls more into the oddball side of Pollard’s pop mind, leaving behind the more straightforward yet lush pop of his last effort, Moses on a Snail, for something that actually does bear a closer resemblance to early Guided by Voices. Last year’s excellent We All Got Out of the Army was similarly all over the place but still felt very much like present-day Pollard.
This album, however, announces its stranger intentions pretty quickly. The sharp edges and psychedelic tromp of “Mr. Fantastic Must Die” is a jarring intro, and though it leads to the more head-on crunch of the title track, Pollard delivers those words in a sleepy hush that is sort of troubling, so that the song never really feels like it’s a easy a rocker as it presents itself to be. It becomes clear early on that we’re not getting one of those “traditional” pop records from Pollard. This is him tapping into his Alien Lanes brain, which is plenty fitting for where he’s at in his career.
In all this wandering, however, he never goes over the oddball cliff the way he can with his side projects. There’s still the sweet shimmer of “I Wanna Be Your Man in the Moon”, the moodier, bittersweet “One More Touch”, and “Something Strawberry”, which manages to be both as goofy a moment as this record offers and its most perfect minute-and-a-half of power-pop. Other moments, particularly “Follow a Loser” and “Woman to Fly”, play it closer to Pollard’s more patient-sounding recent material, sounding like solid changes in tone and tempo through this breezy set.
Still, though this does tap into that early-Guided by Voices vibe, back in that band’s fledgling days, this kind of patchwork record felt, at least in part, to come out of necessity. Here, however, it feels very much like a choice, and though it’s one executed well by Pollard and collaborator Todd Tobias, it’s also a trick we’ve seen Pollard pull before with nearly perfect precision. So for all its jumping around, there’s not a whole lot of surprise in Space City Kicks, and some of the goofier moments here—especially the clunky trudge of “Sex She Said” and acoustic closer “Spill the Blues”—knock the album off-course.
Of course, then there’s “Touch Me in the Right Place at the Right Time”, which is just Pollard-pop at its most grin-inducing and infectious. At one point in “Children Ships”, Pollard seems to worry he’s losing his originality in the pop world. “The sound of my voice is the least of my worries,” he says in a self-deprecating howl; “There are thousands of me.” Lucky for him, Space City Kicks may remind us that Pollard spawned thousands of followers in the lo-fi and power-pop arenas, but it also assures that—even when he’s not at his absolute peak—he is head and shoulders above his acolytes. This album continues his now long and impressive run of solid records, but with its looking-backwards sound, it might be remembered more as a curious companion piece to this classic Guided by Voices tour.