It took a few attempts at doing the math to get to the same number that Robert Pollard has, in declaring August By Cake to be his 100th LP. It took some work, figuring out which EPs were long enough for him to consider them LPs, which box sets counted. I did get to 100, but I’m still not sure I got there the right way. What does it matter?
At this point, I doubt anyone needs to be reminded that Pollard is capable of releasing a sometimes jaw-dropping amount of music in any given year. Setting “Pollard’s 100th LP” up as a historic marker may set up expectations the album isn’t prepared to deliver. At this point, it’s best to think of his discography as a raging river — jump in, hold in for as long as you can handle it.
August By Cake starts with a regal introduction — “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, August By Cake!” Then a song that also has a bit of a regal progression to it, in a Sgt. Peppers way, and also a great melody, absurdist lyrics and a hallmark Pollard triumphalism, appropriate for the occasion.
If August By Cake is meant to be a crown jewel of Pollard’s career, a landmark occasion that feels like a landmark, of course, it’s going to fail on that front. It feels more like a chest overflowing with strange baubles, memories, and mysteries.
It also feels like a variety show. Pollard’s current bandmates all have their songs here, songs where they individually wrote, sang and played the songs themselves. Bassist Mark Shue has three, murky but melodic rock songs. Guitarist Doug Gillard has two, bright guitar-pop songs fitting with his worthwhile discography. Drummer Kevin March’s two songs have sharp, power-pop-ish melodies, even the more introspective “Sentimental Wars”. And guitarist Bobby Bare, Jr. is up to an intriguing mix of alt-country with ‘typical’ GBV sounds.
The double-LP format allows a lot of space to work out ideas, to cram them in without weakening the album-ness. This is a generous field, more a snapshot of Pollard’s creative flow than an overly formatted, organized album. (It might be a blessing that Pollard is old enough to cling to the album format. Imagine an unfettered Pollard moving into a streaming-only format; how could we ever keep up?)
As scattered as August by Cake sometimes feels, its openness is also fertile ground for the different sides of Pollard’s music. There are committed rockers (“Hiking Skin”, “Cheap Buttons”) and home-recorded surrealist numbers lo-fi enough that they’d seem like mistakes if we didn’t know better. (“Fever Pitch”)
There are familiar tunes. “When We All Hold Hands at the End of the World” is a reworking of the Suitcase 2 track “Home By Ten” (credited there to the Inbrids). “Keep Me Down” was a Boston Spaceships song (off The Planets Are Blasted). And a couple of others are familiar enough I’m sure they connect in some way to other past Pollard songs.
My favorite stretch of the album comes near its end. Towards the end of August By Cake’s 71 minutes, but before the final rousing anthem (“Escape to Phoenix”), come a few songs — some with the band, some by Pollard alone — that hit the sweet spot between melancholic reflection and free-association that Pollard can sneak into (see: the end of Not In My Airforce, the entirety of Moses on a Snail and Silverfish Trivia, the first Teenage Guitar album).
There’s “Whole Tomatoes”, absolutely gorgeous, imagistic nonsense, and “Amusement Park Is Over”, which could have been a big, storm-the-stage anthem but instead is sweet and sadly hopeful. And then the time-stuck “Golden Doors” and the maybe dumb/maybe dynamite near-waltz “The Possible Edge”. These songs represent so well the melancholy madness lurking within all of Pollard music while carrying it forward.
Those brilliant, beautiful moments remind me why we keep paying attention, through all the twists and turns. And also how easily our ideas about albums – which album is better than which, how an artist progresses over time – are swept aside in the face of Pollard’s creative river, an unstoppable force. Trying too hard to frame it or contain it is a fool’s game.