I realize it’s trite beginning any review of a Guided By Voices, Robert Pollard solo or Pollard-associated record with a comment on the composer’s mythic prolificacy, but, honestly now, can you believe this guy is human? Only a couple months after the release of Guided By Voices’ “comeback” album Let’s Go Eat the Factory—and a couple of months away from the release of a follow-up, Class Clown Spots a UFO (remember that disfigured elementary school reminiscences are Pollard’s lyrical specialty)—he finds time to write and record the seventeen-track Mouseman Cloud. And the clincher is that it’s better than his group’s latest effort.
Robert Pollard’s pop tune virility is a mixed blessing for both his listeners and himself. All Guided By Voices fanatics acknowledge on at least some level that the majority of albums old uncle Bob has a hand in are rife with skippable, unfinished songs, and that sometimes these morsels outweigh the finished ones, or even constitute the whole thing. A Pollard release is always a dangerous gamble, one which after constant and consistent disappointment even the diehard fans have their misgivings taking. But Pollard can’t be blamed completely—practically albums worth of material are carried in his breath every time he exhales, and slapping whatever onto two full-length records a year (at least) clearly satisfies some visceral desire of his.
He seems to have little awareness of—or perhaps concern for—the fact that some people actually care about his output and expect it to be satisfactory or at the very least listenable. Even more unfortunately, some of Pollard’s best work since the glory days of GBV (Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes—in that order chronologically and in rank of excellence) has appeared on great solo albums (notably Robert Pollard Is Off to Business, which is the record Big Star’s In Space should have been, and Kid Marine which contains a ton of material right up there with the best of classic GBV) that have fallen between the cracks of stupid ones. If Robert Pollard would only slow down or space out the length between solo releases, the good ones might actually get an opportunity to wallow in public perception for a little while. And this is one of them.
The first track on Mouseman Cloud is entitled “Obvious #1”, which, considering its creator, may seem like an unusually straightforward, self-aware allusion to the obviousness of its sequential positioning—it’s definitely the most accessible and “classic” track on the record—but the lyrics tell a different story, one that, with the exception of the line “obvious number one / popular song, or none” is unsurprisingly impenetrable. While Pollard is actually capable of penning an explicable lyric from time to time (as long as no one’s looking—“Echos Myron”, for example, is about the exciting ascent to fame; “Gold Star For Robot Boy” is a vindictive middle finger to the people who never thought he would get there) the words here are so markedly unpretty and tossed off that they aren’t even worth trying to interpret.
However, like most of Pollard’s material, the worthwhile meat is in the vocal melody, and the one that “guides” this song is certainly stickier than anything he came up with for Let’s Go Eat the Factory. It doesn’t matter that the Lennon-esque chord progression repeats for the song’s last thirty seconds without vocals—the melody for the refrain will be so ingrained in your head by that point that you’ll be the one singing over the track (think of it as an intended “Karaoke” section). Pollard’s classic rock fanaticism has always been sleeve-worn, and his infatuation might be the most intense it’s been in awhile on Mouseman Cloud—the junglish and wandering “Picnic Drums” and the title track set the tone for the hard-hitting remainder of the album. “Dr. Time” crams as many stellar melodic ideas into one minute as possible without sounding stuffy—in fact, it sounds like “Surrender” on fast forward, right down to the crunchy guitar tone and anachronistic vocal harmonies.
“Lizard Ladder” and “Human Zoo” are Pollard dabbling in ‘60s psychedelic discord. “Continue to Break” is more standard mid-tempo Pollard fare, and contains the most disturbing and multidimensional imagery on the album in the line “Grandfather blues / Continues to shoot up / The twelve o’ clock news.” The performers are on pins and needles on “I Was Silence”, a track rhythmically reminiscent of Alien Lanes’ “Motor Away”—the band tumbles in before Pollard is even finished counting off, and the tempo gradually increases until the song resolves tumultuously (it seems like none of the instruments knew quite where the ending was). “Science Magazine” is another pop gem, again built around those simultaneously ebullient and contemplative, major/minor ambiguous chords that reside in all of Pollard’s best compositions. The vocal melody here is also close to perfection, nearly on par with the one in “Obvious #1”. “No Tools” and “Aspirin Moon” are more nondescript if perfectly agreeable rockers, and the pressure-drop key changes in “Half-Strained” sound like studio trickery (even though they probably aren’t). “Zen Mother Hen” is the only song on the album to feature acoustic guitar, which is it’s only distinguishing aspect, and “Chief Meteorologist” is a brainless, leisurely “arena anthem” that might not be too interesting of a song on its own, but it’s an appropriate closing track.
Mouseman Cloud isn’t game-changing, but it’s definitely Robert Pollard’s finest collection of songs since Robert Pollard Is Off to Business. In comparison, songs on Let’s Go Eat the Factory feel constricted and superficial, and the inauthentic lo-fi-for-the-sake-of-it production values that permeate that record are no longer exciting or relevant. Mouseman Cloud manages to sound up-to-date while still being warm, sincere and nonchalant, and Pollard of all people should recognize that those things simply transcend recording aesthetic.