Fiction Man, despite its title and singular attribution to Robert Pollard, is not so much a solo album as it is a collaborative effort. The Guided by Voices frontman wrote and recorded several demos at his home studio, passed them off to producer/musician Todd Tobias (of GbV releases Earthquake Glue and Universal Truths and Cycles as well as other Pollard side project Circus Devils), who heaped acoustic, electric and digital instrumentation by the boatload onto their naked frames. Then the pair of them met in an Ohio studio to lay down the vocals, many of which are borrowed from the art-lit book EAT, and believe it or not, tend toward greater obscurity than Pollard’s usual material.
The resulting album is the mutant love child of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector in their roles as producers, one that places far too much emphasis on the stereophonic head-trip made possible by studio equipment and software. The first half is awash in overindulgence. On the first track (“Run Son Run”) alone there are fuzzy drums, sounds like the metal-on-metal of swords being wrenched from scabbards, multiple lead guitar lines, vocal echo effects and other assorted whistles and bells designed to smother the listener into submission. “I Expect to Kill,” the second track, features an industrial drum loop, a synthesized ethereal choir intro and an electronic vamp that pulses and undulates in time with a sound like the doors of the Starship Enterprise sliding open. It’s the equivalent of using thirty adjectives to describe a single noun. The album continues in this manner — even on the more subdued ballads such as “Sea of Dead” and “Losing Usage” — until the effects start to fall away around the midway point, returning with the fourteenth and final track, “Their Biggest Win.”
While the brevity of each song (often no more than two minutes) recalls earlier, pre-Under the Bushes• GbV, there are simply too many musical ideas and nuances crammed into most of these slender slices of time. Pollard was wise enough back then to split any surfeit into a different song — or songs. Tobias has overlooked the fact that skill sometimes rests in knowing when to say when. His micro-symphonies are so encumbered that they lose the necessary forward motion of any pop or rock song. Both Wilson and Spector kept this propulsion in mind when composing and tweaking. It’s why “Good Vibrations” drifts and surges but never backtracks. It’s why “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” doesn’t drown in its own self-conscious sentimentalism.
This isn’t to say that there are no worthwhile moments on Fiction Man. “Children Come on” is a delicate, wistful tune that suits its one-and-a-half minute running time perfectly (and vice versa). It’s one of the few early tracks to transcend Tobias’s noodling. The synthesized flute of “Conspiracy of Owls” complements the song by creating an atmosphere of cheery irony as Pollard finishes off each chorus by asking, “Old king of liars tell please/ How can we know the conspiracy then?/ How can we spread the disease?” With its one-two guitar hooks and a thumping bridge, “Paradise Style” is a much-needed shot in Fiction Man‘s arm, as is the straightforward, unadorned “It’s Only Natural.” “Every Word in the World” and “Night of the Golden Underground” are beautiful pop gems.
Fiction Man is by no means a bad album, and for Pollard and GbV fans the six or seven good-to-great songs will probably make it one worth owning. Some overenthusiastic fans might be inclined to see Tobias’s grandiose studio handiwork as a major event for Pollard as well as rock music in general; but Tobias’s example isn’t a good one to follow. One needs to draw the line somewhere.