Superman was a Rocker is probably the most interesting release we’ve seen from Robert Pollard in quite sometime. It’s hard to consider it a proper, frontline solo release from him, in light of his solid, fully fleshed-out Merge albums, but it is—like many of Pollard’s releases—a distinct curiosity. The album also seems far more interesting than most of his genre-aping, watered-down side projects. Here’s Pollard digs through boxes of old tapes that span back over his entire musical career, selects thirteen of those compositions and puts new lyrics and vocal harmonies to them.
It’s the sort of nostalgic project that lo-fi GBV purists would love, at least in theory. What Superman Was a Rocker should do is remind listeners of the elements that made, say, Alien Lanes so brilliant. We should get some insight into Pollard’s haphazard process. And we should see a meshing of his present day shimmer and his old school fuzz. But none of these things happen.
Instead, the album sounds, like a lot of Bob’s “minor” work, typically self-indulgent. And, for the most part, it is hard to decide why these were the compositions he chose. When Guided by Voices were making lo-fi records, it made more sense to operate in bits and pieces. The mosaic quality of those album’s fit their sound and made them distinct. But now, having left GBV behind, the worth of this album—considering how awkwardly it is executed— is questionable.
In some cases, the mixing of old music with new vocals is uneven. “Another Man’s Blood” has new, shiny vocals put way up high in the mix, drowning out the murky music underneath. In other spots, the vocals are distorted and muddy, meshed a little closer with the track, but the production, or lack thereof, sounds more obligatory than natural. Some compositions actually sound fine on their own, until Pollard’s strange vocals come in. One track, “Back to the Farm”, is smartly kept as an instrumental. Of course, you have to sit through a senseless radio show clip to get to the solid acoustic number.
A few spots do succeed here. “Go Down First” and “More Hot Dogs Please” are the kind of quick, raucous numbers that could have been on Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand, or at least been b-sides on singles. “Love Your Spaceman” is the best meshing of today’s arena rock Pollard with yesterday’s tape-noodler Pollard, and its the closest thing to a clear-cut pop number on the record.
But the rest of the record doesn’t fall apart because it’s not catchy enough. Pollard has, on occasion, succeeded with his off-kilter sound experiments. But these songs, or clips, just don’t come together to give us something new from Pollard. It doesn’t illuminate any new elements of Guided By Voices’ old sound, and it doesn’t act as a solid juxtaposition to Pollard’s more polished tunes today. Superman was a Rocker is, in the end, more work to figure out than its worth. It was a good idea on paper, but that is hardly enough.