One problem with modern production is its reliance on mathematical perfection, and Tobin proves that genuineness is stronger than perceived perfection.
With a record title as big as his main career collaborator’s output, The Universe and Me is an epic record of miniature proportions. Like tiny models displaying the great longings of our heart, Tobin Sprout injects his first new album in six years into our ears with the momentary ambition and mid-'90s pop melodicism of his former band mate and our collective hero, Bob Pollard. If Guided by Voices were the indie Beatles, then Bob Pollard was John and Paul. Tobin was George. Reserved, skillful, simple on his parts and contributions. His time with GBV was fruitful as he had three four-year stints with the band, and during the two most important stretches, they released 11 full-length records, including their two best Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand. His time with GBV is also notable for housing all of their lowest fidelity periods.
Tobin was in GBV at its inception; the garage moments in Dayton before “Blimps Go 90”, before touring, before “Bob For President” T-shirts, when there was just pop and beer. His influence steers to fuzz, and surprisingly better reviews. His presence has lent perfect moments of respite from the never-ending weird pop assault of Pollard. His tenderness on “It's Like Soul Man” and “Awful Bliss” and more classic GBV tracks were umbrellas to stand under briefly while the classic hooks rained every 60 seconds. His solo career briefly even followed Pollard’s. In 1996 and 1999, he echoed his overshadowing companion, but since, his pace has slowed down to normal while Bob’s has doubled down, year after year.
Now on his sixth solo album, released on Burger Records, Tobin has perfected the sound he has always inhabited, if there is anyone left to hear it. The record is packed full of epic pop in small spaces, like a whole thanksgiving dinner stuffed into a toaster, and popping at just the right moment. The title track feels familiar from the get-go, and it's one of the only reprises in history where the hook doesn’t feel tired the last time through. The smoothness of Tobin’s voice combined with the melody makes moments float, like the first few seconds of “Cowboy Curtains” and you can’t imagine it will get better, then it does. When Tobin croons, “take us away…”, its Peter Pan pop at its best.
“When I Was a Boy” is the kind of song no one in indie music is writing right now. It's succinct, it's strong, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The moment is so tender and precious that you feel guilty for listening. The softness is Sufjan-esque, but only in execution, not melody. The hook is so singable that if you are familiar with the track, even the reading of the title brings the melody flowing into your brain. If I didn’t know Tobin was in his early 60s, I would imagine him some eager 22-year-old in a New York loft, recording on Ableton.
He has more cards to play than soft and sweet, though, “Just One Kid” has the lyrical power of a 16-year-old with nothing to lose and the recording propels the words and energy further and faster each measure. The guitar crushes like Mitch Mitchell and the rhythm and repeated phrases suggest some lost narrative, like a buried '60s pop gem with the lyric sheet too water stained to read. I strain to hear the words, and find them buried just beneath the surface of fuzz and drums. The shorter tracks demand repeated listens, and the longer tracks feel short, it’s the magic of good pop.
The lo-fi nature of this record matches the '90s GBV classics not only in tone, but in motive. It sounds lo-fi out of time-constraints, not as an effort to restore some previous scene. The guitars are crisp and full and fuzzy and the drums are lined up, or not and it works. One problem with modern production is its reliance on mathematical perfection, and Tobin proves that genuineness is stronger than perceived perfection.