I’ve lived with More Lies from the Gooseberry Bush, Robert Pollard’s second album under the Teenage Guitar moniker, for the last two months or so, and it’s wormed its way inside of my brain as all of his best albums do. But the listen that really hit home with me had nothing to do with my own choice whatsoever; walking into my local record shop during an idle lunch break, I took out my earphones to see what they had on the stereo. It was Teenage Guitar. Looking around the shop, I saw how confused it was making people - the slightly uncomfortable glances customers were exchanging with the staff, as if to suggest “Why are you playing this when you have thousands of other things you could be subjecting us to?” The staff, bless them, kept the album on to the end - it’s barely half an hour long - and moved on to the next CD as if it wasn’t a big deal. And, to be honest, it probably wasn’t.
But what that listen to More Lies made me realise was just how wilfully odd Robert Pollard can be when put in a context outside of one's own fandom. I've reviewed about five of his albums, under his own name or with the now-desperately-sadly-once-again-defunct Guided By Voices, bestowing upon them uniformly glowing praise, and trying to find different ways to say the same thing. Teenage Guitar is different. Teenage Guitar is unfiltered Pollard - he plays all the instruments (even the ones he doesn't really know how to play), produces the records (this time at the same studio where the last GBV album was recorded) and, obviously, writes all the material on his own. If Pollard's other records are his way of doffing his cap to his Big Rock influences, then the Teenage Guitar project is his attempt at making a Skip Spence or Syd Barrett record. They're insular, unwelcoming and more than a little unhinged. It barely needs to be said that they are, in short, not for everyone.
Maybe even more than on his wilfully odd Circus Devils albums, Pollard's tendency towards the weird shines brightest. More Lies is an album where you should expect the unexpected; the album's lead track, "Spliced at Acme Fair", begins with a ten-second sample of an oompah band, before morphing into a rudimentary waltz laced with dark stabs of synths - "the more the scarier" indeed, while "Gear Op" could pass for a campfire strumalong - complete with bongos! - were it not for the sound of a ringing phone chirping away in the back of the mix. Pollard also seems to have discovered drum machines, which are programmed as if by a button-happy eight year old, which gives an uneasy propulsion to tracks like "A Guaranteed Ratio" and the darkly anthemic "Skin Ride", which opens with a queasy industrial stomp, before winding up in a malevolent biker chant, sung by a chorus of Hell's Angels who just ingested some pretty bad acid.
But there are some more straight-laced gems to be found here as well; with a little tightening, the stop-start "Full Glass Gone" could have fit neatly on an early Wire album, and "New Light" sounds like a recording of an early R.E.M., during which Michael Stipe insisted the band play in the dark. Best of the bunch is tucked away at the album's close; an arena-ready chug, "A Year That Could Have Been Worse" is one of Robert Pollard's absolute finest rock anthems. There's no chorus to be found, though that's never stopped his songs hitting hard before (see also: "Echos Myron"), but there's tension and release aplenty; as the track rolls on, Pollard pushes his voice harder and harder, giving credence to the quasi-optimistic lyrics. While an aim to "transform the negatives into a neutral position" is hardly a feel-good manifesto, in "a year that could have been worse," sometimes that's the best you can do. And "A Year That Could Have Been Worse" is definitely some of the best that Bob can do.
Teenage Guitar posits itself as something of a fans only curio - as, to be honest, any album not released under his own name tends to - but there's an unceasing amount to latch on to for those who take the plunge. For one thing, its UK release comes with a bonus disc of the first Teenage Guitar album, Force Fields at Home, which never got a proper release on these shores, which is equally worth investigating. For those who think they knew what's coming with any new Robert Pollard release, even a cursory listen to More Lies from the Gooseberry Bush will show that Bob's sleeve is never short of a couple extra tricks. He's just getting better at strategically deploying them.