“I’ve finally figured out how to write a song after 55 years.” Robert Pollard, speaking about his new album Blazing Gentlemen.
For a man who has released around 1500 songs in the last twenty-five years, the above statement is possibly the most cryptic thing (of many) that has ever left Robert Pollard’s mouth. This year alone, he’s released at least thirty borderline classics across five albums – his last solo effort Honey Locust Honky Tonk was itself a major step forward - so why undermine the back catalogue? There are countless devotees of Guided By Voices who hold a good thousand of those pieces of music (at least) as exemplary slabs of musical genius – thousands of Robert Pollard fans can’t be wrong, can they? Or maybe, with Blazing Gentlemen being his sixth and final LP of the year, Pollard just needed a new way to hype up his music?
There isn’t really a conclusive answer to any of those questions, though Blazing Gentlemen does mark a slight shift for Bobby Pop. That said, it’s not through a change in personnel – once again, the album was recorded by just Pollard and long-time producer/collaborator Todd Tobias – nor is there any marked difference in the writing itself. Yet, from the bombastic opening crunch of “Magic Man Hype”, with its rampant “Immigrant Song” gallop, you can tell that the kid’s got heavy. The stomping single “Return of the Drums” - “You get out of the swamp!” he commands, “You’re finally out!” - could well be Bob’s counterblast to the controversy surrounding the departure of GBV drummer Kevin Fennell, with a knowingly basic (read: endearingly crap) drum fill rising in the mix after each utterance of the title.
There are few other Pollard records riddled with this kind of sonic density – the album’s first half (subtitled ‘Blazing Gentlemen’) is an expertly-arranged mini-suite, slathered in a glorious casserole of distortion which somehow never gets sludgy. The title track in particular has an arid, Queens of the Stone Age-style spaciousness, underpinned with lyrics which tell the splintered story of a group of desperadoes, riding “to Phoenix with feathers in skullcaps.” You can almost hear the sand under Bob’s feet. The charge only lets up on the sub-minute ‘Picadilly Man’, a minor-key marvel of sinister beauty, while ‘Extra Fools’ Day’ unexpectedly cribs the intro to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ before charging into a winding litany of names and chords, never repeating the same part twice yet still managing to be insidiously catchy.
By comparison, side two actually sounds like a step backwards. Making for a belated sequel to 2006′s pop-happy Normal Happiness, it returns to the more standard Pollard tropes of skewed hooks and an anarchically gleeful discarding of The Rules of Rock. The biggest departure, ”My Museum Needs an Elevator”, is a three-minute multi-part epic which swoops from spiky guitars to a charmingly non-sequitur chorus (“Help me Mr. Space Invader, are you an engineer?”) set to an anthemic waltz, but most everything else here is as straightforward as Bob gets. There are straight-ahead chuggers like “Faking the Boy Scouts” and the borderline pop-punk “Triple Sec Venus”, while ’Tea People”s charming Beatlesy bounce, complete with “ba-ba-ba”-backing vocals, makes for the record’s most understated highlight.
It’s hard to tell if Pollard’s newfound “ability to write songs” will lead to a more obvious development in his future material – maybe further proof will come with Guided By Voices’ next album, Motivational Jumpsuit, which lands in February - but to most it shouldn’t matter. There has never been anything wrong with the oddities that emerge from Bob’s brain, and Blazing Gentlemen simply sees the man operating in as relentlessly fine form as ever.