One of Robert Pollard's many side projects, the Circus Devils is the name for his work with the Tobias brothers, who provide a vaguely arty kind of post-punk musical backdrop for typical blocks of Pollard's abstruse, dadaesque lyrics. The results are reminiscent of the sadly neglected '80s band Slovenly, who brought a similar intricacy and angularity to pop song structures, investing them with unusual chords and atonal textures that sound more accidentally discovered than aggressively chosen. The guitars are rarely distorted, and are occasionally acoustic, complemented by some unobtrusive keyboard playing here and there. At times the Circus Devils toss in some found noises and some sheets of static, but these never seem intended to disorient or startle. Listening to their music is not meant to be some kind of art endurance test, to separate the worthy from the philistines by measuring how much aural assaulting they can withstand.
This particular effort purports to be a concept album revolving around a dead biker, but you are unlikely to figure this out without reading the lyrics, and even then you would have to have a pretty peculiar imagination to come up with that conclusion. While the heavily treated piano playing which begins the album plays like moody soundtrack music, setting the stage for a narrative to unfold, the concept never crystallizes. This is fortunate; it allows The Harold Pig Memorial to circumvent the problem with many concept albums, that the songs become boring the moment you become bored with the story. But that still doesn't mean these particular songs are especially accessible. Initially they seem impenetrable and hookless, with Pollard shouting like Steve Mariott with a sore throat lines like "Discussions in the cave" and "Saved herself, shaved herself" for no apparent reason.
Many songs feature Pollard reading his lines, sometimes reciting them like an exuberant drunk at a poetry reading, other times intoning them like an airport intercom announcer. As is often the case with Pollard's lyrics, their relentless torrent, specific to something largely incomprehensible, is disconcerting and overwhelming. The lyrics actually obscure the music, making it sound more miasmatic than it really is. The only song that embeds itself quickly is "Last Punk Standing", and that may only be because the marginally catchy chorus is repeated six or seven times. But after few acclimating listens, The Harold Pig Memorial's charms begin to surface from the murk. What all sounded the same starts to sound rich and varied; the tempos suddenly seem wisely diversified, the guitar work concise and inventive. Songs that seemed bland and familiar begin to sound old favorites. The anthemic "Foxhead Delivery" and the Grand-Funk-on-quaaludes stomp of "A Birdcage until Further Notice" build to compelling climaxes, while "I Guess I Needed That" and "Bull Spears" chug along with a satisfying Crazy Horse meets SonicYouth groove. While there is little here that will surprise anyone familiar with Pollard's back catalog, there is enough singularity to the material to keep it from feeling entirely redundant.
Like the litterbug who deliberately drops trash to the ground to keep janitors in business, Robert Pollard seems to drop new records with the same intent of keeping critics busy. That is what one might conclude, anyway, from the usual critical perspective on him, that he is too prolific. It's a strange position to take, to abrogate an artist's work because there is too much of it, as though a critic's primary role was to regulate supply curves. It's not only unfair to judge Pollard's work in the context of the ever burgeoning body of his oeuvre, but it stinks of certain record industry shibboleths that are good for their business but not necessarily for accurate critical assessment.
Record companies generally want to extort the maximum value from every release, and don't want to devalue their product by flooding the market with too much of it, particularly from one source. To this end they encourage the idea that the making of a record is a long, difficult, almost mystical process where the carefully selected and elevated artists (the valuable intellectual property of record companies) work in semi-seclusion to produce their masterpieces (incidentally, the recent film Laurel Canyon depicts this same ideology, as the fictional band struggles with their producer to find the magical hit formula. Whether the film embraces of mocks this ideology is open to debate). The last thing the recording industry wants is someone like Robert Pollard, who produces with unpretentious and apparently effortless ease so much consistently good music he makes much of his own catalog superfluous. He gives off the dangerous impression that making interesting rock music is easy, so easy that rock fans might not actually need to buy industry product but might instead make their own with the same sort of casualness. When critics condemn Pollard on the basis of his prolificacy alone, they are, knowingly or not, mouthing the industry's party line.