No one can possibly be surprised that Robert Pollard is releasing two albums on the same day. It seems more like an unavoidable event than anything. He’s released three albums in a month before, so he might as well go ahead and take this leap. What might be surprising about his latest Merge offerings though, is not how different they are. Cosmetics aside, how different are any of Pollard’s releases? What is different is their level of success. Coast to Coast Carpet of Love is the best thing we’ve seen from Pollard on Merge, and the best we’ve seen from him overall in quite some time. Standard Gargoyle Decisions, on the other hand, is decidedly unsuccessful.
When two albums come out at once like this, I suppose the one you hear first is the “first” record. So, in that case, Coast to Coast is the first record of the pair, and it shows Pollard and studio pal Todd Tobias correcting many of the errors they’ve made over the years. Tobias’ production and instrumentation have always aspired to sound lo-fi, but instead often come off as low budget. Fiction Man, Pollard’s most forgettable solo offering is the best evidence of that. But here, the progress we saw on From a Compound Eye and Normal Happiness finally comes to fruition with an album full of clean, bright production, and Tobias’ most solid playing on an album yet. It’s nice to hear that the last remnants of lo-fi are totally absent from Pollard’s songs here, as they can shine their power pop shine in their bigger, warmer digs.
This is also, pound for pound, his catchiest and most consistent Merge record. Where Eye and Happiness would indulge tangents, Coast to Coast stays focused. In 38 tight minutes of over sixteen songs, Pollard packs a lot of punch. “Current Desperation, (Angels Speak of Nothing)”, “Our Gaze”, “Miles Under the Skin”, and “I Clap for Strangers” are some of the best power pop tunes you’ll hear all year. They also happen to be much more revealing songs than Pollard normally gives his listeners. Not since GBV’s Isolation Drills has Pollard seemed this vulnerable. “Robbers take new grave sites, take mine” he sings on “Current Desperation”, a song like many on the album that probe at Pollard’s, (who’s a grandfather now), mortality. And while he still uses his weird imagery and syntax to relay emotion, (“God makes and breaks everything,/ so I clap for strangers now”), he can be surprisingly straightforward in songs like “Miles Under the Skin” where he claims “When I stare at the floor,/ I do it convincingly”. For a guy so full of bluster and Miller Lite on stage, this seems a long way from the persona we know and love, and that’s what makes it so effective.
There is little to complain about on Coast to Coast. “Penumbra” isn’t as catchy as it could be. “Count Us In” is a little too plodding, as Pollard falls back on his oft-used, deliberately strummed minor chord verses. “Look is What You Have” is too bouncy and sing-songy. But none of those songs are out-and-out bad, and they don’t slow down an album of quick jabs. Pollard fans will surely be pleased with the arrival of Coast to Coast, an album that fulfills the promise that his other Merge releases came so close to achieving. On this album, the Uncle Bob we know and love is back.
Unfortunately, some might get roped into Standard Gargoyle Decisions since it’ll be right next to Coast to Coast on the rack. The problem is, on this album, Pollard and Tobias take a step backwards in every way possible. Where Coast to Coast was supposed to be power pop, this album promises straight-ahead rock ‘n roll. But that promise goes unfulfilled.
What we get instead are fuzzed out and downright sloppy versions of the stuff we’ve always heard from Pollard. He is guilty once again of putting the artifice of change on music that is essentially all the same, (i.e. Circus Devils are the Takeovers are the Keene Brothers and on and on…). By letting Tobias pump these songs full of distortion, a distortion that often sounds toy-like and silly, Pollard thinks the listener will see Gargoyle as a sweaty, grimy rock record. Instead, it’s a lazy album. The opener “The Killers” has a chugging guitar riff, but goes nowhere lyrically as Pollard reverts back to nonsensical goofiness (“The killers,/ they’re coming to get you”).
Uncle Bob also turns to a new trick he’s been cultivating over the last couple of years: self-mockery. On songs like “Butcher Man” and “Motion Sickness Ghosts” he drops his voice to a cartoony baritone that’s supposed to be funny. You can feel Pollard mugging at the studio mic as he sings, but the songs aren’t good enough to handle his attempts at humor. Most of the songs just sound like Pollard is not trying. The songs could be full of his pop hooks, but he’s got Coast to Coast for that, so why bother here?
Well, Bob, you should bother because these songs got nothing going for them without those pop hooks. There’s a reason you got a warehouse, (or car trunk), full of Psycho and the Birds’ records, Bob; the people want the hooks.
With a few exceptions like the solid “Shadow Port” and the blue light tune “Island Lobby”, there’s not much to be found on Gargoyle that’s worth remembering. It seems impossible that someone who’s been so good for so long at making rock music, could set out to make rock here and fail. We all know Pollard has to put out 45 records a year to feel productive, but maybe he could cut down to 41 or 42 and give them all the same amount of attention. Because, up against Coast to Coast, Standard Gargoyle Decisions just sounds neglected.