[10 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
You can say this about post-GBV Robert Pollard: he’s a man quick to satisfy urges. He entertains every musical whim that comes to him, even more shamelessly now than before. Before, he had the home base of Guided by Voices to return to once he entertained himself out on those bizarre satellites. But now, cut free from his band, he’s as prolific as he ever was, and in some ways even less predictable.
But the last couple of solo efforts from Pollard—and, similarly, his work with Boston Spaceships—have hinted at his desire to get that home base back. To have some straight-up rock ‘n’ roll to return to after he’s done doing whatever it is, say, the Circus Devils do. Recent solo discs Robert Pollard is Off to Business and The Crawling Distance were fully-formed albums, cohesive statements made of driving and well-built songs. So, if you were to fall into the trap of thinking you know what’s next from Pollard, you’d think Elephant Jokes would be another of these more traditionally put together records.
And, of course, you’d be wrong. Elephant Jokes is Pollard at his most schizophrenic and plainly joyful. The album runs over 22 brief tracks, and stylistically jumps all over the place. What brings it together, and makes it a fitting follow up more to the Boston Spaceship albums than his solo work, is that Elephant Jokes finds Pollard returning to the joy of being in a band. There are plenty of players here—not just the often insular playing and production of Todd Tobias—and these songs sound built to be played with the rest of the fellas.
Some of the best stuff here is simple, goofy dude rock—making you wonder if the album title isn’t some vague phallic reference. “Things Have Changed (Down in Mexico City)” starts things off with churning guitars and Pollard’s plaintiff bleat powering up the chorus. Later on, “Symbols and Heads” comes on like the soundtrack to a drunken party you want to be at. “Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah”, is all Pollard sings on the chorus, and it is plenty for a song so simple in its joys. Elsewhere, “Stiff Me” and “When a Man Walks Away” toe the line between this party rock and the emotive feel of late-era GBV, and that combination makes for two of the best cuts here, the kind that remind you just how bracing it was to hear Alien Lanes for the first time.
But this 22-track collection is not Alien Lanes, so while the songs themselves stay brief, they start to pile up and some get lost in the shuffle. The bouncy pop of “Compound X”, the moody minor-chord crescendos of “I Felt Removed”, the pastoral build-up of “Parts of Your World”—all of these are interesting tangents, but none assert themselves enough to be memorable. With the exception of the psychedelic stomp of “Epic Heads” and the power-ballad-turned-noise-experiment “Tattered Lily”, Elephant Jokes is at its best when Pollard plays it straight. Leading the players through a bunch of rafter rattlers is what Pollard does best, and this album has plenty of those to keep the album as a whole afloat.
And really, to expect a steady feel from this album is to mistake Pollard’s intentions. He is a man unconcerned with his legacy, with critical response, with pleasing anyone but his fickle muse. So to hear albums as willfully uneven as Elephant Jokes can be frustrating, particularly when you know Pollard can crank out infectious pop bliss in his sleep. But it also admirable in its own way, how Pollard stays focused on his own artistic vision, even after all these years. And even if that vision is too scattershot for the rest of us to fully understand.