Of all Robert Pollard’s musical incarnations, Circus Devils have long been the most difficult one to hang with. The Devils choke out awkward chunks of prog rock, charming in their goofiness at times, but often with too much surface abrasion and not much under that. They may be fun experiments at times, but mostly they come off as filler in between other Pollard releases. As if there was time for that.
And up until now, it seemed that Circus Devils was the project that would get left behind in the wake of Pollard’s newly revived solo material and his searing work with Boston Spaceships. But the new energy in focus that has gone into those projects seems to be leaking into the Circus Devils’ drinking water on Mother Skinny. It’s still unapologetically eccentric, but these kooky songs pack an awkward punch, and make some room for us, the listeners, to immerse ourselves in sounds that are more accessible without being any less weird.
Pollard hasn’t necessarily changed his approach to the Circus Devils’ sound here, just refined it to play to their strengths. Their ability to shift tempo on a dime has always served them well — even at their most unlistenable moments. But if you hear the way they sprint and halt on “Get on It” and then settle into a hazy pop shuffle, you hear perhaps the catchiest song the group has given us yet. Well, maybe not catchy, but infectious in its utter weirdness. On the other side of the musical world, the keys and gauzy guitars whip “Kingdoms of Korea” up into a psychedelic storm that shifts the albums mood to something a bit darker, if still winking.
If these are the two poles of the record — the “icky-sticky” kook-pop and the trudging, druggy rock — then the Circus Devils travel the huge space between them pretty well. “Hard Art (Hard All Day)” is about as thundering as Pollard gets, with a crushing rock riff and vocal melodies belted out to the rafters, while something like “A New Nostalgia” is all disjointed atmosphere, kicked up for Pollard to mumble through. It’s songs like “Freezer Burn” and “Sub Rat”, though, that hint at the new success on this album. Those tracks run a middle ground between that theatrical atmosphere and those rafter-shaking riffs.
The combination may seem like a dull middle ground, but it actually shows them at their most vital sounding. It’s stuff like the spoken-word antics of “Germ Circus” or the saccharin piano burst of “All the Good Ones are Gone” that wander too far down the stranger paths in Pollard’s mind. Sure, Circus Devils was pretty much created to be exactly that, an outlet for the eccentricities of one of the most eccentric songwriters today. But where the other Circus Devil records imply Pollard can’t both purge those weird ideas and create a cohesive album, Mother Skinny shows just enough focus to make it seem possible to make a consistent album based on a wholly inconsistent sound. They’re not quite there yet — check the utterly silly “A New Necklace of Warts” or the clunky closer “Shut Up” to see the indulgences that haven’t changed for Pollard — but Circus Devils are on their way to getting the mix right.