Guided by Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
Half Smiles of the Decomposed, Guided by Voices’ putative farewell album, has been on record store shelves for nigh on six months now, and in typical Ink 19 fashion we’ve allowed it a long (ahem) acclimation period before finally weighing in. But as luck would have it, the timing isn’t entirely inappropriate. Robert Pollard and his band only recently played their final shows — as Guided by Voices, at any rate, though who knows in what side- or post-project incarnation the individual members will reappear — at Chicago’s Metro, simultaneously closing out 2004 as well as a 21-year run. Not bad when you consider just how reckless and ill-fated Pollard’s career as a rock’n’roll frontman seemed from the very start.
All matters of quality aside, the very release of this 14-track swan song has evoked mixed feelings in both die-hard and casual listeners. The end of GbV, indisputably such a towering and vital presence in indie rock, signifies nothing less than the end of an era. But the uncomfortable reality is that GbV have been running on creative fumes since Isolation Drills (2001) — and some would go back even further than that, citing Pollard’s dismissal of the original Dayton band after Under the Bushes Under the Stars as the proper end. Although several critics optimistically treated 2003’s Earthquake Glue as a glimmer of a potential comeback, it was yet another in a string of disappointing releases that were big on laurel-resting, oppressively thick guitars and studio magic, and crucially short on ideas. Pollard the overconfident stadium rock star had long since supplanted Pollard the self-parodying bedroom songwriter. By all accounts, anyhow, GbV never quite regained their footing after the leap to TVT (and back to Matador again three years later) with Do the Collapse in 1999.
Half Smiles makes some advances toward erasing or at least diminishing the unsavory memory of the substandard albums in what we now have to consider to be GbV’s twilight years. This last album rediscovers the joys of concision: only the anti-war anthem “Sing for Your Meat” and the slow-intro rocker “Sons of Apollo” dare to creep up to the four-minute mark. Most are of the rapidly shifting two- and three-minute variety, the kind where Pollard is trying to cram a surfeit of ideas into as short a timespan as possible. And while there’s no escaping the professional and polished radio-friendliness that has characterized every release since Do the Collapse, the point where the reigning kings of lo-fi pop decided to shed the lo-fi once and for all, the slick overproduction is thankfully nonexistent. So you could call this regression with traces of development, then, or even the best of both worlds; and in some ways it is. But if I was forced to root through the band’s long, long discography to find its closest cousin, I would single out Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia from way back in 1989. In that sense, it’s a career come not-quite-full circle. (And I should add that I genuinely believe this. I’m not just trying to tidy up loose ends or force the history of GbV into a convenient narrative shape.)
“Sleep Over Jack,” the song from which the album takes its name, is refreshing in comparison to GbV’s recent output. The song moves ahead at considerable speed despite its nervous, wobbly legs. It’s reminiscent of the countless (literally) songs from the band’s early days that were a kind of highly advanced brainstorming, colorful mix-n-match curiosities that came to seem full and coherent and appealing the more one listened to them. “Girls of Wild Strawberries,” on the other hand, which has been selected by any number of critics as a high point on the disc, is little more than limp pop drivel. There is none of the energy and punch of the formative years or the debatable tendency toward greater sophistication and refinement to be found here; it’s a case of a prolific and naturally gifted songwriter delivering a kind of wistful mediocrity. Fortunately, this is one of the few glaringly uninspired or misguided moments (the equally prettified “A Second Spurt of Growth” is another) on Half Smiles. “Gonna Never Have to Die” sounds as if that’s really the case as Pollard implores us to “Be a motorcycle/Be a getaway car” over the slapping drumbeat; this carpe diem mandate quickly segues into a strangely discordant psychedelic pop guitar solo. “The Closets of Henry” mixes a bit of historical research with Pollard’s famously obtuse lyrics, and in a way that few others can, turns it into a viscerally moving rock song on par with “Big Boring Wedding.”
Half Smiles of the Decomposed is not the album a lot of folks wanted or expected to be Guided by Voices’ last. Because it neither puts the band in a new, revelatory creative light nor does it mark a complete return to the days of alcohol-fuelled, stream-of-conscious, four-track basement recordings, it makes the last few years of the band’s existence look like a disappointing loss of direction and a wasted opportunity. As an album, however — and one by Guided by Voices, no less, from whom we always expected nothing short of sensational — it is consistently strong and satisfying. Viewed in the grand scheme of things, Half Smiles is a fitting record precisely because of its stylistic fence-sitting between “old” GbV and “new” GbV. It’s symbolic of the issue that affected the band, and more specifically, its charismatic frontman, for over two decades: Bob Pollard the indefatigable, talented and unpredictable pop songwriter trying to find a way to reconcile the rock star myth with the much humbler bedroom recording reality.