Over the past decade, Robert Pollard has streamlined his act; whereas his former group Guided by Voices grabbed the indie spotlight in the mid-‘90s by interspersing sporadic moments of blissful transcendence with recurring bouts of drunken doggerel—and to such frequently stunning effect that the doggerel somehow seemed part of a grand organic whole rather than something Pollard tossed off between rounds of beer—for some time now Pollard has been opting instead for a smooth consistency in his albums, polishing off the rough edges by outsourcing them to his Fading Captain series of side projects, experiments, and assorted other ephemera, and thus giving his “proper” work a more finished quality.
Normal Happiness, his latest effort, represents the culmination of this trend. It’s his sixth release of the year, after one self-identified “major” album (From a Compound Eye, his 26-song January debut on Merge) and four additions to the Fading Captain roster (albums by ad hoc groups the Keene Brothers, the Takeovers, and Psycho and the Birds, with an additional EP by the last one). Surprisingly—or perhaps not, for anyone familiar with Pollard’s ultra-prolific tendencies—Normal Happiness does not reek of exhaustion. Instead, it’s framed as a bright, spiffy set of sharp’n'short pop ditties, 16 of them in 35 minutes, grounded in punchy melodies and a general sense of all-around exuberance.
If Pollard’s polishing process spares us the agony of such bloated dreck as the bleary-eyed experimentation of “Red Ink Superman” (off 2003 solo album Motel of Fools) or the dozens of aimless acoustic diversions sprinkled across the imposing GbV discography, it also introduces a certain homogeneity into the game, as Normal Happiness occasionally meanders into contemporary Sub Pop territory, sounding at times like another anonymous emulation of the Shins/Rogue Wave brand of indie-pop. Longtime Pollard producer Todd Tobias’ curiously workmanlike job facilitates that association; with neither the warm static buzz of Pollard’s lo-fi past (and Fading Captain present) nor the sparkling shimmer of the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow, Normal Happiness sometimes comports itself with a sonic blandness that belies its peppy intentions.
Even so, the songs crystallize into moments of piercing clarity often enough to justify the album’s existence several times over. “Accidental Texas Who” commences things with jaunty, staccato new-wave chords and a strange vocal melody that sees Pollard abruptly dipping into his lower register after coming out, guns blazing, with a declaration of, “I want to get away/ I want to leave today.” “Whispering Whip” begins with an ominous guitar squiggle straight out of one of those five-minute gloom epics that periodically cropped up on late ‘90s GbV albums, but it opens up into a heady pop gem wrapped in synthesizer lacing—all in 75 seconds.
Indeed, brevity defines many of the tracks, and the temporal compression serves to bestow a certain formal elegance on some. “I Feel Gone Again”, as short as “Whispering Whip,” feigns acoustic-throwaway status before erupting into a would-be chorus, both elegiac and anthemic (in the way portions of pre-fame GbV album Propeller were), that gets only one go-through before the song is, true to its title, gone again. Before one can mourn its passing, Pollard tosses out “Gasoline Ragtime,” with a playfully shifting musical foundation that briefly invokes House of the Holy-era Jimmy Page before tensing into a Devoesque guitar line and finally releasing with some sax bleats. Amazingly, this all occurs in a minute and a half; even more amazingly, it holds together as a tight, coherent song.
Cresting mid-album with “Rhoda Rhoda”, Pollard dishes out yet another of his unstoppable pop melodies; if Tobias’ unenergetic production fails to lift the song into the blissful narcotic glee of, say, GbV’s “Glad Girls”, it nonetheless enters the Pollard canon floating on heavenly wings of tunefulness. “Supernatural Car Lover”, too, contends for instant-classic status, with its bubbly bass and the easy roll of its vocals; only a guitar that too overtly recalls “I’m a Widow” from Pollard’s last proper solo album hinders it.
The only overtly weak moments arise on “Give Up the Grape”, a seeming sequel to Isolation Drills’ “How’s My Drinking” on which Pollard’s throaty singing suggests he’s just stumbled home from some ill-advised Iron John men’s campfire session, and the bland closing track “Full Sun (Dig the Slowness)”, with a full band vamping over what sounds like a theme song from a forgotten late ‘80s sitcom. As mentioned, the real flaw of the album is more discreetly embedded in its simple consistency, which flattens Pollard’s valleys at the cost of putting a ceiling on his peaks. Still, if Normal Happiness isn’t prime Pollard, neither does it fall into his voluminous discard pile. If the title is any hint of intent, he’s achieved his goal here, with a solid and respectable effort that’s as close to both normalcy and happiness as Dayton, Ohio’s unstoppable rock hero is likely to get.
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