Tobin Sprout is most widely known as a former member of the incessantly present indie rock act Guided By Voices. He’s been in and out of the band a few times and has been the principal songwriter for some of the groups’ best tracks during their peak era. While in the band, Sprout was always the austere foil to his songwriting partner Robert Pollard’s raucous ways. While Pollard might be yelping about flies in one corner, Sprout would be on the other side of the room, crafting a jangly gem about a sincere friendship. Now, in his GBV days, Sprout was quite playful as well, especially when digging into the definitively legendary moment the band was having in the early 1990s. Sprout was not afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz.
Whereas Sprout’s prior solo work was grounded in the same sonic and lyrical world as most GBV, Empty Horses takes on a clearer mindset, both lyrically and production-wise. A typical song in the Sprout discography could encompass the roaring buzz of a tape deck, or the loud twang of a Stratocaster, all placed underneath lyrics laced with absurdity and compassion. Gone are the fuzz and roar, though, and in its place is warm production, simple instrumentation, and solidity in the songwriting. Empty Horses is not the Tobin Sprout we know.
Musically, Sprout has made a singer-songwriter record. It’s heavy on unadorned piano and acoustic guitar, with the occasional distortion on a guitar. The opener, “Wings Prelude”, is just piano and a voice, setting the groundwork for the autumnal acoustic work “The Return”, which in turn sets the stage for the first showing of electric guitar, “Breaking Down”. The only synth work is that of light pads in the background of a few songs.
The album is being called a study of Americana. Lyrically, this makes sense as Sprout paints his impressions of the American Journey. There are stories of humility (“Wings Prelude”), mental health (“Breaking Down”), love (“Every Sweet Soul”), war (“Antietam”), and Jesus. While Sprout walks us through these stories, it can’t be helped but to hear others like Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith here, those that have and are telling the same stories. It’s a change coming from Sprout, but there’s a richness in his voice and stories that evoke the rich past of similar songwriting.
My favorite song from Sprout’s GBV era is a track, not on any of the proper albums. It’s from one of their lesser-known EPs called Tigerbomb , and the song is called “Dodging Invisible Rays”. It has that signature Sprout guitar tone with his typical mix of absurdity and emotionally-grounded lyrics. “Slow down to a cool crawl, until your knees weak until your legs fall,” Sprout warbles over a guitar lead that sounds like a massive swarm of bees. It’s also humming with the “Recorded-in-The-Basement-On-The-Fly” liveliness so common in that era of GBV. Empty Horses has none of those features. It’s subdued, grounded in reality, and produced with precision. I’m sure Sprout is not done with making music by the seat of his pants, but for Empty Horses, he took a more deliberate approach, and the rewards are quite different, but they are still rewards nonetheless. Slow down to a cool crawl, indeed.