What’s the deal with Bob Pollard these days? While for much of the last decade he’s been known for marrying ’60s rock and power-pop to surrealism, when he records as Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard, and for dipping here and there into experimentation and noise-rock under names like Nightwalker and Howling Wolf Orchestra, lately he seems to be jumbling everything up more. It’s like every album he’s involved with, except perhaps Guided By Voices’ major releases, is designed to knock you off balance, to make you say “Huh?” That isn’t to say that his recent, non-GBV recordings aren’t good, just that they’re all over the map.
The most recent two examples are the Circus Devils’ Harold Pig Memorial, an exercise in both horror rock and introspective arena rock (which isn’t the contradiction in terms that it might appear to be) which I liked a lot, and his solo mini-album Motel of Fools, which I’m initially feeling quite dumbfounded by. It isn’t that Motel is an exercise in pushing your ears into some sort of bizarre new land, it’s just that the CD’s doesn’t settle on one style or mood. Considering how many Pollard/GBV releases, from Bee Thousand to Isolation Drills, gain much of their strength from maintaining a consistent, enticing mood, it’s hard at first to get used to the decentralized aura of Motel of Fools.
“In the House of Queen Charles Augustus”, the first track of seven, opens with Pollard singing in what sounds like a closet before leading into a mid-tempo ballad that sets up an introspective mood and runs with it, as Pollard sings obliquely about the title character and throws psychedelic guitar solos into the air. The second track, “Captain Black”, has a similar mood — with Pollard similarly if more beautifully singing about an odd character in a mysterious way — though the style is softer, more acoustic. From there comes the five-minute-plus “Red Ink Superman”, which goes from a bizarre sound collage into an even bizarre slow-as-molasses march, with Pollard’s vocals slowed down and warped. This is one of those mystifying moments where you think “Maybe if a had this on vinyl I could switch it to 45 and I might detect a melody”, and then “where’s the fast-forward button?”, but before you find it the song has switched again, into a intense power ballad with a haunting mood. From there the song quickly becomes one of the CD’s show-stoppers, a scary and brilliant exercise in intensity which ends with guitar feedback and force surrounding Pollard singing, “We’ll even the score in World War Four”.
The fact that the most rock moment of the CD is also one of its scariest should give you an idea of what the overall atmosphere is like. There’s something slightly off-kilter at every moment; there’s no smooth pop moments, no big hooks. The lyrics, while hard to pin down, often hint towards fear, despair and power struggles, with even hints of hope being countered with the feeling of being trapped. For example, “Captain Black” ends with the line “And I am free (for now)”.
“Red Ink Superman” is followed by “The Vault of Moons”, an intriguing pop song that’s hard to figure out, as guitars are overlapped, Pollard’s voice sounds increasingly further away and there’s a near-song end clip of him introducing the song itself in concert. “Saga of the Elk” is a more typical-sounding GBV ballad — though again a ballad, and less a “Hold on Hope” radio-friendly ballad than an album track one like “Burning Flag Birthday Suit”. The album closing “Harrison Adams” is also a pretty, very Pollard-like ballad, which leans toward rock with a sweeping, emotional lift near the end. It is a superb song similar to the best tracks on GBV’s last two albums, even if it is bookended by silly clips of Pollard’s weirdo friends, Gibby and Geo, talking nonsense.
But before “Harrison Adams” is perhaps the most puzzling track, a seven-minute suite of songs that’s titled “The Spanish Hammer” and subdivided into 4 songs, though it’s hard to tell where one song ends and another begins. This is simply schizophrenic, moving rather abruptly between Pollard hazily singing about Camaros and “wildlife energy” over a swirl of uneven psych-rock and little bits of him singing over piano. The song also mutates into a heavy-metal jam that seems from the liner notes to be a snippet of Pollard playing with his pre-GBV metal band Anacrusis (here referred to as the Original Anacrusis). It’s hard to tell if that’s really what it is or if Pollard’s just putting you on; that quandary is a crystallization of the puzzle that is Motel of Fools itself. While part of the joy of Pollard’s song has always come from their mysteriousness, Motel of Fools at times seems like a constant stream of references and jokes that only Pollard and his friends understand. There’s lots of self-referential allusions to past Pollard recordings, from the opening song quoting lines from Pollard’s song “Subspace Variations” to the way the guitar part on “The Vault of Moons” sounds uncannily like that of GBV’s Alien Lanes track “King & Caroline”, to the presence of a batch of former GBV members, including Greg Demos, Don Thrasher, Jim Macpherson, and Tobin Sprout.
What these references add up to is hard to say. Similarly, the stories of Captain Black, Harrison Adams and the other character are always half-told, more wisps of tales than anything complete. But the more time you spend with Motel of Fools, the more all of these feelings of incompleteness begin to make sense. This is, after all, a motel of fools, a place where disparate people stay momentarily, without revealing their true selves. The songs on Motel of Fools are as transitory as the characters; they come, they tell you something intriguing, and then they disappear before you have them figured out. Robert Pollard’s musical personality on Motel of Fools is like that too. He’s picking up ideas and soon dropping them for another. He’s getting in one frame of mind and then replacing it for another. Motel of Fools might not be the most comfortable recording he’s made, but it does constantly spark your interest. It’s a motel where ideas, thoughts and sounds come and go. Some of them might mean more to you than others, but all of them will get you thinking or feeling something.