Robert Pollard's best album may still be in the future, and may be born of the past.
Robert Pollard's brain must be filled with millions of songs, song scraps, rough drafts, sketches of ideas, wisps of melodies, and word combinations. And in the Pollard/Guided by Voices universe, all of those are really the same thing. The more recordings he releases, the harder it is to keep track of what came from where, of what was on a "proper" album and what wasn't, of what is a "demo" and what is an official "song", of what was a Guided by Voices song, what was a Robert Pollard song, and what was a song by Circus Devils, Psycho & the Birds, The Takeovers, or ______ (fill in any one of a multitude of other band names). Once it all blurs together, the more irrelevant the facts are. What you're left with is a universe of music that came from the brain of one man, more or less, with plenty of other musicians and weirdos brought along for the ride.
A genius idea is part of the impulse behind one of his latest bands, Boston Spaceships. Pollard has released (or barely released or written but not released) many songs that people have already forgotten. He's even forgotten a fair share of them, no doubt. Why not take some of those songs and rework them, re-record them -- take rough sketches of songs and build them up in a studio, with a proper rock 'n' roll band? Boston Spaceships' debut LP Brown Submarine ends with one such song, and it's a doozy: "Go For the Exit". Actually the first time around it was called "Go For the Answers", with lyrics that were a little more self-help-book than Pollard is probably comfortable with these days. So the lyrics have been altered, but the melody is intact. It's one of those eternal pure-pop melodies that seems to have been born in perfect form, to have come from nowhere. That's one of Pollard's true gifts, and one reason even Pollard's roughest demos are worth poring over.
A melody like that sounded cool sung into a boom-box on a whim by Pollard, but with a cracker-jack rock band powering it, it can take on a whole new life. That's a key part of the Guided by Voices story, especially when they coalesced into a living, breathing, touring band. Boston Spaceships is a band as well, and a tight one: Pollard, Chis Slusarensko, and John Moen. Slusarensko played in GBV towards the end and Moen is the drummer for the Decemberists. Together with a couple others, they're taking Boston Spaceships on the road, and have indicated that it will be Pollard's main band in upcoming years. That gives Brown Submarine a different air than some of Pollard's other recent projects, where he often has been relying on one collaborator, Todd Tobias, to play most of the music himself. Replicating the exact sound of a particular rock band is no small feat, but it's the coordination of a band that makes "Go for the Exit" take off like it does. That song is one of the more inspiring moments of Pollard's post-GBV career, if only because it makes it easy to imagine the amazing albums that could come out of this approach if carried forward. Any GBV fanatic, me included, has their own dream list of cast-off or unreleased songs that could be built up by a proper band into new classics. Include B-sides that were released and the prospects boggle the mind. Pollard's best album may still be in the future, and may be born of the past.
Other songs on Brown Submarine may have similar roots, but "Go For the Exit" is the only one I recognize without searching back through box set upon box set of GBV to remind myself. Yet it's far from the only interesting or enjoyable song here. "You Satisfy Me" rivals it for tunefulness, especially as it proceeds and builds, from an unassuming start, into a catchy anthem. "Two Girl Area" has a brilliant tune as well, and a neat lyrical moment where the girl he's hitting on -- or dreaming up, it's always hard to tell -- confesses her love for Guns ‘N' Roses. "Andy Playboy" is an excellent little sing-along song nicely buried halfway through the album. "Ready to Pop" has upward-looking guitars emulating the title's impression of just barely containing a feeling, while Pollard sings a great melody over the top. It ends with one of those transcendent coming-together moments, where the hook repeats, the tempo picks up, and horns come in.
The album opens with "Winston's Atomic Bird", a solid rock number with a driving guitar line and some of Pollard's trademark surrealistic lyrics. It moves toughly but has a weirdness to it, as does the choppy "Ate It Twice". A sense of strangeness is as much Pollard's gift as melodies, so it's to the album's benefit that there's odd, moody songs like "North 11 AM" and the title track, where violin underscores Pollard's lyrics, which are part-nursery rhyme, part-ghost poem, part-joke.
The best of Pollard’s music unites skilled songcraft, rooted in music history, with eccentricity, and the best of Brown Submarine is in that mold. But as always, especially recently, Pollard can't resist the urge to take detours away from any easy route to pop-rock gold, to scuff things up, to goof around with what seem like classics, to make listeners say “what?”On Brown Submarine he tempers that habit more than on some recent albums, but still can’t resist throwing in answering-machine message snippets or singing in a more dramatic or muddled way than the particular song seems to call for. The most drastic detour here may be "Still in Rome”. It’s a hard-rock, sludgy kind of song, but one that feels directionless. Elsewhere his messing-around with songs just makes us pay more attention to the other elements besides his vocals. He’ll sing a bit off, but the guitars will still be shredding. “Psych Threat” starts off seeming a bit dull, the title phrase a bit monotonous, but then the next phase of the song contains a powerful surge of rock energy.
There's about 70% of a fantastic pop-rock album here, which these days is how Pollard rolls. Few of his recent albums have been as consistent as the best GBV releases. At the same time, the post-GBV Pollard releases with the clearest, unified vision have been the most esoteric, greeted with unfortunate silence or hasty dismissal by critics. I’m thinking of the Circus Devils albums and Pollard’s Silverfish Trivia, in particular. Brown Submarine, like 2008’s Robert Pollard Is Off to Business, is less cohesive, but driven by greater highs.
Pollard’s creative stubbornness, the joy he seems to take in punching holes in the “best” aspects of his music, can be frustrating. But by now any Robert Pollard fan knows that you can’t expect him to give you an album that’s exactly what you want. If a bum note or too-long inside-joke snippet hasn’t rubbed you the wrong way, you must be so spellbound you’ve cast aside your critical faculties completely. Pollard’s headstrong approach represents an essential quality of his musical endeavor: restlessness. Perfection is not the goal. Each recording is just another piece in the ever-growing puzzle, just another fish in the stream. It’s all one big artwork, one big riddle, one big laugh at anyone who would expect rock 'n’ roll to be clean and easy. The initials of his new band name and album title are no coincidence: B.S.