If Robert Pollard’s post-GBV career has seemed a bit aimless and impermanent, it’s not due to a lack of output. Uncle Bob is as prolific as ever, but for the past couple of years his career has seemed to lack a sturdy center. Guided by Voices was always the foundation of his career, and his solo work and side projects were curious, and sometimes brilliant, offshoots.
It would be logical for his solo work to step up and become the focal point of Pollard’s career with GBV gone, but his recent solo albums have been good but not great. They certainly yield their share of catchy Pollard-ian bliss, but they don’t rise high enough above the Takeover albums or the Circus Devils albums to rest his career on them.
The Crawling Distance
(Guided by Voices, Inc.)
US: 20 Jan 2009
UK: Available as import
That is, until now. With the advent of his new band, Boston Spaceships, Pollard seems to have been jolted back to life. Their first disc, Brown Submarine, was a brilliantly goofy pop album, and brought back a childlike zeal in Pollard we haven’t seen in quite a while. The Crawling Distance, his new solo album, takes that energy and launches it in a completely different, more cohesive, direction. This album follows after the last solo effort, Robert Pollard is Off to Business, by offering ten fleshed out songs that cover about 35 minutes.
And while Off to Business was an early signal of Pollard’s return to form, he still felt too subdued on that record. It was nice to see him live in songs and flesh them out, but he sounded just a little too settled. Not so on The Crawling Distance. This is the most consistent and energetically catchy batch of songs Pollard has given us in a decade. “Faking My Harlequin”, the album’s first track, announces Pollard’s intentions with propulsive drums and a clear, high-in-the-mix Pollard sneering through the verses—singing “Try not speaking to me, my love” to start off the track—before his high and nasal keen flies us through the choruses.
From there, the record shows a surprising amount of variety in its ten tracks. Pollard offers some slower numbers here, like the mid-tempo “Red Cross Vegas Night” and the acoustic ballad “It’s Easy”. Neither track loses its bite by slowing down, and each offers a refreshingly emotional performance by Pollard. “It’s Easy” is particularly affecting when Pollard draws out the title line, his voice cracking ever so slightly, belying his sentiment, hinting at a wisdom he’s learned in all his years. Those two tracks also bookend the best track on the record, “The Butler Stands for Us All”. The track is classic Pollard, in both elements and execution. The melodies are airtight, the sliding guitar note is infectious, and when he sings “It pays to know who you are, ‘cause that’s who you are” you can feel a freedom in him. The way he sings on this record—full-throated, easing off his quirky, man-behind-the-curtain baritone in favor of belting out the notes—makes him sound like he’s found the joy in rocking again. That maybe enough time has passed and he can truly put GBV behind him and focus on his solo work. In short, he seems to have rediscovered who he is as a performer.
It also helps that producer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias sounds the best he’s ever sounded on The Crawling Distance. Gone is the cheap sounding production and stop-start drumming, and in its place is a very full-band sound. There is no space between Pollard and the music as there has been in the past, and the cohesion and clarity of the sound really lets the songs speak for themselves. Tobias’ great touch shows up most on the rockers, like the speedy “By Silence Be Destroyer” or the floor-thumping “Cave Zone”. Before, these songs would have been cluttered with fuzzy guitars and tinny drums. But on this record, these songs have muscled-up guitars and arena-sized drums. The songs are big and bright and the perfect background for Pollard’s great vocal performance.
Maybe it is because Pollard knew he was taking these songs out on the road with Boston Spaceships that made him focus in. Maybe that band has helped him find the spark again. Maybe he’s simply been working his way back to this level over the past few years. Maybe it’s all those things. The reason doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Robert Pollard is back in a big way with The Crawling Distance. It’s an album sure to please the long-time fans, but so damn fun and hook-filled that it should find a following in the larger indie rock community. This is an album you can build a career around.