Robert Pollard has reportedly claimed Honey Locust Honky Tonk is his country album, and there he is on the cover dressing the part (or at least looking he’s visited an old-time dress-up booth at
Six Flags). Somebody could stretch their imagination and connect this to country music if they focused exclusively on a handful of lyrical references. There’s a song about an undertaker, one about a woman in black, one about murder (“I Killed a Man Who Looks Like You” could be a country title, maybe) and a few bittersweet relationship songs which spell the story/feelings out more than he often does. Musically, though…I define country music more broadly than 99 of 100 people, but it’s impossible for me to hear this as country, even as fake country or someone’s idiosyncratic version of country. Nope, what this sounds like is a Robert Pollard album, plain and simple.
Pollard claims he’s released 80 albums, under all his various guises, and he might not be far off the mark. Even obsessive super-fans — and generally speaking I am one — would find it hard to differentiate between some of them if played a random track. His prolific tendencies are criticized more often than praised — why doesn’t he edit better, release far fewer albums and have each one be more consistent? This perspective misses the point — or, to be more specific, misunderstands Pollard’s whole creative endeavor, which is to channel his artistic energies out of himself in one constant flow. All of these recordings together stand as one recording. It’s easy to imagine what your own personal version of the perfect Pollard album would be, but it’s hard to think there’s one definitive version everyone would agree is perfect, or that Pollard’s definition would ever match your own.
This hyper-prolificity encourages active listening, our own editing, and in that way is a foil to critics and a gift to those seeking to be perpetually challenged and provoked. Nearly every review of a new Pollard album ends up either saying it’s not as good as album X or it’s the best thing he’s done since X. Both types of statements end up saying more about the writer’s expectations of Pollard than what’s really in the music, and are unfair to both the album being reviewed and the one it’s compared to. The truth of it is, listen to nearly any Robert Pollard album — with the exception of maybe a few where he tripped onto some kind of strange perfection — and you’ll hear both great and bad songs, no matter how you define those adjectives. He’s not aiming for perfection, even if he occasionally stumbles onto it.
Compared to the average Pollard album, especially those under his own name, Honey Locust Honky Tonk is softer, poppier, and less given to agro attempts to ROCK. That makes it accessible, even surprisingly so for Pollard in this era. He recently said the album contains songs that would have gone to the next Guided by Voices album, and you can hear that, through the number of concise pop-rock anthems, even as the actual recordings are a bit thinner, a bit looser than they likely would have been on an album under the GBV name. Still, within the comparative gentleness and tunefulness, there is a dark rock undercurrent to much of the album, expressed mainly through some classic Pollard Who-isms but also through emotional and ambiguous lyrics. There is, as always, a certain amount of fighting going on within the songs.
There are currents of distrust running through the songs; distrust of other people (“Her Eyes Play Tricks on the Camera”), of how humans perceive/remember each other (“Drawing a Picture”, “Find a Word”), of the world and what we know or will never know about it. The album seems populated with people asking questions or themselves or the world and not finding answers. The repeated “we may never not know” in “It Disappears in the Least Likely Hands (We May Never Not Know)”, with its double negative, seems like the perfect representation of this overall uncertainty.
The strangest music often accompanies the most melancholy mood — like the beautiful drum/guitar mismatch behind his (Get Out of My Stations-like) murmurings on “Igloo Hearts” or the jaunty little recurring riffs running through “Draw a Picture”, a pop tune that seems to have its mind towards legacy and how it’s developed, and how little he cares about what we all think. “When you’re drawing a picture of life / don’t forget to draw the blind conclusion about me / do it without me.”
“Strange and Pretty Day” is up there with the loveliest of Pollard songs. An amazing mix CD or two could be made of these weird little pretty piano pieces, which gets back to the benefit of him letting us edit and interpret our own history of his music. Pollard sings this one in a pretty fog that’s this side of out-of-tune and/or underwater, against a lo-fi repeating piano part. The song might be his version of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day”, but more dour, in a sort of stasis. “All eyes are on the dream of being lost…and found,” he sings.
As always, Pollard often accomplishes the most in the shortest periods of time, in a minute or two. In one 50-second song he pumps up the audience to a classic rock crescendo, then states “I’m moving along,” and disappears. In another he quickly, succinctly raises a toast to everyone in the world — “to ourselves, to the sea, to the rising misery” — while explaining drinking as a response to the world’s changes (“I Have to Drink”). Given twice that amount of time, he can spin out an entire story, a deep mood, or a tune that’s half the length of most hits but nonetheless feels like more of a complete statement.
The album ends with “Airs”, the sort of relaxed but yearning pop-rock anthem that the pre-break-up-and-reformation, early-’00s GBV would have ended an album with. It is both a pleasing ending and one that reminds you of how much substance there is in the album overall — how many hooks, words, sounds, tones and impressions that stay with you afterwards. The critics who are saying it’s his best in [insert preferred amount of time here] aren’t wrong, but they also aren’t right. Listen back through the years, especially to the albums under his own name like this one, and realize both how similar they are to each other (there is a distinct “Robert Pollard”-ness that’s different than the “Guided by Voices”-ness, within the overall Pollard world) and how consistently interesting his creative approach has been, and continues to be.