It was not quite six years that Guided By Voices was away when a strange thing happened to Robert Pollard’s myriad projects in the absence of his “main” band. While he continued to release solo records, seemingly as his central focus, they never quite asserted themselves as the center of the Pollard circle. They were (often) great, but instead of rising above his side projects, they came off as one more tangent, another thing still stuck under the GBV specter.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It rises, at least in part, out of a rise of more consistent output from Pollard. Without the “normal” rock songs of Guided By Voices around, Pollard didn’t have to oversell the oddity of his projects, and instead used their eccentricities to craft new and more fruitful twists on his brand of power-pop. No group has benefited more from this than Circus Devils. Nine albums in — far too many for this to still be a mere side project — Pollard and the Tobias brothers have produced Capsized!, an album no less strange than its proggy, acidic predecessors, yet far more successful than any of them.
The band has been building to this moment. The softer, acoustic sounds of 2009’s Gringo sanded down the harsh, chunky crunch of previous records, while 2010’s Mother Skinny then applied that new tunefulness to a dark rock record. They were light and shadow, but both showed a strength hidden within their unruly sound: the band could be weird, even combative, and still write great songs.
Capsized! continues in this vein and continues the band’s careful move towards cohesion. Though the pieces don’t seem to fit when pitted against each other — the swaying intro “To England the Tiger” seems to have nothing to do with the sharp growl of the title track that follows — but the overall effect of the album is one of a unified vision. Capsized! doesn’t feel like a series of disjointed experiments; it feels like an exciting yet orderly collection.
Circus Devils do sometimes hit the mark in ways that are not all that surprising. “Cyclopean Runways” and “Hangerman Suits” are typically excellent Pollard pop gems, with quick riffs and Pollard’s arena bleat knocking out the choruses. There are, however, more striking successes to be found on this record. “Legendary Breakfast Code” is an oddly gentle and affecting tune, one that feels confessional and sweet even though they don’t stray from Pollard’s usual oddball lyrical tendencies. You won’t know exactly what he means when he says “I miss your legendary breakfast code,” but you will feel the emotion behind. Elsewhere, the band gets dark and moody to pretty great effect. Two spoken word tracks standout here — a first for Circus Devils, since this is usually where the wheels come off. “Leave the Knife Curtis” sounds like a moody reimagining of Guided By Voices’ “Hot Freaks”, and it works nearly as well, while the chilling “Vampire Playing the Red Piano” evokes the same feeling as a Terrence Malick voiceover in all its perplexing, impressionistic wandering.
For all its success, and its overall strength, there are still moments that find Circus Devils bogged down in their too-far-flung eccentricities. Things start to trudge on late moody numbers like “Plate of Scales” and the all too appropriately titled “Stiffs on Parade”. Also, there’s the unlistenable “Double Vission”, which involves far too much audio of someone vomiting. These moments sound like the last gasps of Circus Devils’ worst tendencies as a band. Capsized! shows, on the whole, that Pollard and the Tobiases have come a long way, and crafted their most listenable record without sacrificing the best parts of their strangeness. It may not be a masterpiece, but there are slivers of evidence here that one could be on the way.