[17 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Three songs into Motivational Jumpsuit, we get a song titled “Writer’s Bloc (Psycho All the Time)”. This is a pretty weird title from Robert Pollard, a guy who put out six records with different projects last year, who is known, really, for putting out six records in any given year. If you’re considered prolific as an artist, the comparisons inevitably turn to Pollard. And yet, in this song in 2014, he claims “that last recording nearly killed me” and “it’s taking me too long.” Now there’s a humor in this because, in all likelihood, that “last recording” is something yet to see the light of day. But more importantly, it gives us an organizing tension for Motivational Jumpsuit. It’s easy, as artists get older, to read some subtext of mortality into their work. Here, Pollard seems not so much concerned with that as with his reputation and his creative drive. If Pollard is not putting out six records a year, this song seems to ask, then who is Robert Pollard? If he can’t keep up the impossible pace he’s built, what happens then?
And with that in mind, Motivational Jumpsuit becomes the most fitful and impatient and exciting album since the “classic” Guided By Voices line-up returned. It subtly shifts away from the order of the past few records and into territory that is hardly new but feels fresh. Pollard knocks out quick pop gems and Tobin Sprout once again succeeds as his gauzy pop counterpart. It’s a set that feels less obligated to be lo-fi than Let’s Go Eat the Factory, less willfully strange than English Little League, and finds its cohesion in forgetting all about being cohesive.
Opener “Littlest League Possible” sets things up well here, ringing out bright guitar chords behind Pollard’s doubled vocals. The band comes in with a lean beat, and the song runs under a minute and a half and somehow still manages to feel big, nearly expansive. It doesn’t lead into the acoustic fuzz of “Until Next Time” so much as concede space to it. Oddly enough, “Writer’s Bloc (Psycho All the Time)” is, despite its worry, the most fleshed-out tune here, and yet it still frays at the edges. The brittle chords that act as its foundation unravel between Pollards’ honeyed barking and rumbling bass lines. There are echoes of its crunching power-pop drive in “Planet Score”, the most propulsive early tune that then, of course, seems to crumble into Sprout’s hazy “Jupiter Skin”.
The production and playing here suggest a move away from lo-fi gems written for the arena, which we’ve seen so many times before from Guided By Voices. Perhaps it’s the time away from the stage, but these feel more like songs written in and for the garage, the bedroom, the basement. So there’s an immediacy to even the power-ballad feel of “Save the Company” or the moody charge of “Difficult Outburst and Breakthrough”. This slight shift also reveals not so much the differences between Sprout and Pollard but rather the similarities. Sprout’s “Some Things Are Big and Some Things Are Small” feels sonically tied to Pollard’s “A Bird With No Name”, and the melting tones of Sprout’s “Shine” set the table for the more muscled but no less smudged guitars of Pollard’s “Vote for Me Dummy”.
Together, Pollard and Sprout have produced another catchy set of tunes, this time mostly without the oddball filler. Sure, Sprout’s “Calling Up Washington” feels more sleepy than dreamy, and Pollard’s “Bulletin Borders” never quite takes shape, but overall the consistency is there. What Motivational Jumpsuit does that its immediate predecessors don’t is it forgets about the traditional single. In fact, while these songs are catchy, they’re often not about the repetition of a great chorus or hook, so much as they use a series of hooks to build to a moment. There’s something tidal about songs like “Save the Company” and “Planet Score”. They hit their sweet spot and they move on. There’s no need to circle back around, but rather just drift away so the next wave can come in.
There have been moments like this on albums like Class Clown Spots a UFO, but that album also included the clear-cut, fully built single “Keep It in Motion”. Let’s Go Eat the Factory had “Donut for a Snowman” and others. The Bears for Lunch had “Hangover Child”, while English Little League had “Flunky Minnows”, and so on. These songs, like them or not, were just a few of many songs that sought to be stand-alone singles. The fascinating and satisfying thing about Motivational Jumpsuit is that it manages excellent stand-alone songs—“Planet Score” and “Difficult Outburst and Breakthrough” top the list—by not worrying about the traditional single structure. These songs get in and out as quick as they can, and in that way become lasting. Motivational Jumpsuit never lets a moment overstay its welcome, which is what makes the whole such a pleasure to listen to.