Guided by Voices: Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Frantically flipping through radio stations while driving a moving truck from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I come across a familiar song on a college radio station somewhere in Ohio. It’s Bob Pollard singing, no doubt, but what song is this? I know the tune, I can sing along, but I can’t quite place it. Mysterious and beautifully melodic, it’s a classic Bob Pollard riddle, a power ballad cut in half, loaded with sadness and hope and yearning for the past. But what is it… some long-forgotten b-side, something from Tonics and Twisted Chasers maybe? Nope, it’s “Girls of Wild Strawberries”, off the newest and final Guided by Voices album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed.

Half Smiles isn’t a step back in time for Pollard and GBV, but I never would have mistaken anything off of 1999’s Do the Collapse or 2002’s Universal Truths and Cycles for a GBV song from an earlier era. That’s part of what’s so intriguing about Half Smiles and what makes it a fitting end for GBV. On this album GBV somehow manages to capture the essence of the band’s discography while at the same time sounding very much like the hi-fi arena-rock powerhouse they had evolved into over the last decade… and at the same time taking some of Pollard’s more experimental tendencies and accelerating them. All of this makes Half Smiles a really curious album, and a truly fulfilling one.

Musically Guided by Voices has always hovered around the line between Pollard’s desire to front a wild rock ‘n’ roll powerhouse, his love for rock music that retains a sense for the unconventional and mysterious (from Devo to Wire to Krautrock and onwards in millions of directions), and the ease with which he can craft perfect pop melodies. All of these qualities and influences are sublimely evident throughout Half Smiles. The band’s basic style here is the big, arena rock sound they’ve been delivering and developing at least since 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars, with plenty of Who-like explosions of energy and rave-up guitar-rock moments. But there’s also more warped and playfully dark moments than on any proper GBV album since they moved out of the basement and into proper recording studios. The second song, “Sleep Over Jack”, kicks off that side of the album; it’s weird and anxious, with angular basslines, echo effects, and sampled voices from an old movie or something. That song feels like an oddity, and reminds you of the time when every Guided by Voices song sounded like an oddity, like a UFO from a different decade or plane of existence.

Those of us who fell in love with Guided by Voices around 1994 or earlier remember a time when they were a real curiosity, a puzzle to figure out. That quality had something to do with the mythology surrounding the band, with the way their extensive discography and pseudonyms made fans feel like detectives. But it also had something to do with the music. To be frank about it, as emotionally satisfying and adrenaline-charging as many of GBV’s recent efforts have been (I’m thinking of Isolation Drills and Earthquake Glue in particular), there’s a part of Pollard and GBV that’s always trying to recapture the level of fascination and mystery that surrounded Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and the albums that came before them. When upon nearly every new GBV album’s release Pollard jokes from stage that it’s going to be the next Bee Thousand or that fans are going to love it more than Bee Thousand, he’s partially acknowledging that album’s reputation as a classic, but he’s also hinting at a desire to recapture some of the aura which that album exuded. With 2002’s Universal Truths & Cycles he tried to do it by making the lyrics more obscure, and on parts of each album he tries to do it by writing melodies that are more straightforwardly pop (“the next album’s going to be more pop, more like Bee Thousand“, I’ve heard both Pollard and guitarist Doug Gillard say at different points in recent years). But somehow Half Smiles of the Decomposed gets closer to building that level of curiosity around it, almost by happenstance. It doesn’t sound like Pollard was trying to push GBV in a more obscure direction, yet by letting his disparate creative impulses all thrive, without concerning himself with notions of hit singles or popularity, he has succeeded in making an album that’s delightfully puzzling and shadowy.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed has more moments that recall Bob Pollard’s adventurous solo albums and side projects (the literal storytelling of Kid Marine, the denseness of Choreographed Man of War, the prog-rock explorations of Lifeguards’ misunderstood Mist King Urth) than any other recent GBV album. It has more surprising moments, whether it’s the shockingly crystal-clear but off-kilter acoustic guitar solo at the end of “Gonna Never Have to Die” or the atypically explicit anti-war message of “Sing For Your Meat”. It has more songs that sound like they would have been right at home on Under the Bushes Under the Stars and more small moments that make me think of the band’s earliest albums, the ones collected in their Box boxset. And there’s possibly more moments that overtly quote from Bob’s beloved Who (listen to the rock segue in “Window of My World”, or the way the opening guitar on “Second Spurt of Growth” echoes “Sunrise”), yet those allusions don’t come off as lazy or imitative, but integral to who Pollard is as a songwriter. In essence Half Smiles of the Decomposed is more overloaded with ideas and styles than any other recent Guided by Voices album, yet the songs still hold together cohesively and the album actually gains in depth from the variety.

I’ve been more nonchalant about the demise of Guided by Voices than your average obsessive GBV fan. To me it’s essentially a name change and a lineup change more than a breakup, since Pollard will continue writing and releasing music, and GBV was a band in name more than reality, with Pollard being the only truly central member. My hope is that recording under his own name will let Pollard feel more comfortable pushing his music in new directions, that he’ll feel less pressure about what he should or shouldn’t be doing. Half Smiles of the Decomposed feels like Pollard making peace with GBV’s legacy and taking steps in the direction of progress and reinvention. To me it’s a perfect ending and a brilliant new beginning, even if the beginning/ending dichotomy is a fake one, more like another part of the grand GBV story than anything else.