There were times when Robert Pollard seemed to dream of playing to packed stadiums. As is part of indie-rock folklore by now, back in the late ’90s the ragged group of musicians who played with him in Guided by Voices were disbanded, replaced by a tight, competent backing group. Pollard and this new version of Guided by Voices worked with former Cars lead Ric Ocasek to produce a glossy, punchy, and generally unloved album (Do the Collapse) that was meant to be the band’s major label debut. The major labels passed on hearing the final product, but though Pollard has no doubt accepted that he won’t ever be a really big star, he still seems to enjoy trying to be Big Star.
Pollard has always had two primary songwriting modes – the ramshackle, throw everything-at-the-wall pop experimentalist, and the writer of power-pop anthems in the mould of the aforementioned Cars and Big Star. Even from Guided by Voices’s earliest days of basement home recording, that tension always created interesting dynamics, as the two sides of Pollards’s split songwriting personality fought it out for dominance with each other and with his bandmates, often within the same song. Since Guided by Voices’s second incarnation broke up in 2004, however, Pollard seems to be increasingly inclined to compartmentalise his songwriting styles. His endless stream of solo albums have for the most part displayed his more eccentric, whimsical side, while the hard-charging power-pop anthems found an outlet through his main side-project since 2008, the Boston Spaceships.
All that has changed in the last year, however. The Boston Spaceships disbanded in 2011, and the much-anticipated reunion of the ‘classic’, pre-schizm Guided by Voices line-up has given Pollard a new vehicle for his more experimental side. The result on Jack Sells the Cow, his second solo album since the reunion, is one of his tightest and loudest solo records. Unfortunately, as those Guided by Voices Mark II albums around the millennium often demonstrated, a focus on tight power-pop songwriting doesn’t always play to Pollard’s real strengths.
The album, which was once again made with his long-time collaborator Todd Tobias, is dominated by driving, mid-tempo guitar anthems, most of which are unusually light on hooks by Pollard’s high standards. The first four songs are all in this vein, weighed down with murky, portentous guitars and strangely flat vocals. The best and shortest of the bunch, “Take In”, does have a sweet, optimistic melody, but struggles to lift its head out of the fog around it.
It’s not until “Pontius Pilate Heart” that Jack Sells the Cow really gets off the ground. With its upbeat, jangling guitars and surprisingly heartfelt lyrics, it’s exactly the kind of miniature pop gem that Pollard’s fans have always suspected he could write more often with a bit more focused effort. Sadly, the rest of the album doesn’t quite deliver on that promise. There are some very good moments — “Big Groceries” has a simple, soaring chorus, “Red Rubber Army” is a enjoyably kooky change of pace — but much of the album is given over to plodding, slightly aimless guitar anthems like “Fighting the Smoke” and “The March of Merrillville”. There are good songs here individually, but taken together it’s all a bit indigestible.
It’s become almost a cliché to suggest that what Pollard needs more than anything is good editor, since he seems unable or unwilling to edit himself. There is certainly some truth in that, even if it seems unfair to fault him for his astonishing level of productivity. After at least two solo albums a year since 2006, five albums since 2008 with the Boston Spaceships, and various other projects, it might be reasonable to start to suspect that a good proportion of his recorded output might be a little under-baked at best, kind of tossed-off at worst.
But Pollard’s voluminous output has always been characterised by a large proportion of failed experiments. It’s just that the misses have often been as interesting as the hits, and he has usually known when not to try to stretch a song out beyond its ability to retain interest. Comparing this album with the two very good albums by the reformed Guided by Voices suggests that at this point it’s not so much editing that Pollard needs, as access to interesting collaborators. That’s not to fault Tobias especially, who does a solid if workmanlike job with the material available. It’s just that, after something like 50 albums of recorded material since the late ’80s, it shouldn’t be surprising that Pollard benefits from a few more ideas outside his own head to bounce things off, and a more diverse musical and vocal backing for his consistently interesting, oddball lyrics.
For all that, Pollard remains a unique, interesting artist, and there will be those that really enjoy this version of Pollard’s style — anyone who loves the Guided by Voices albums of the early ’00s or found the recent ‘classic lineup’ albums too whimsical and inconsistent is likely to enjoy Jack Sells the Cow. They may be in the minority, though. Still, the good news is that, whatever your preferred flavour of Pollard, there will be something new coming down the road some time very soon. Bank on it.