One of the toughest things to do as a musician is to evolve successfully. The act of evolving itself is easy — you just follow your muse wherever it takes you. Doing this without angering or alienating your fan base and therefore taking food out of your own mouth is less easy. Artists like Radiohead or David Bowie managed to make their evolutions a part of their identities, while bands like Metallica and Weezer have sullied their once-good names again and again during their lifespan.
Robert Pollard is a different case. Basically, he emerged fully-formed and as evolved as he would ever get. The now 62-year-old former grade-school teacher popped into view as a weird purveyor of lo-fi delights that ran the gamut from drunken half-thoughts to fully triumphant alternate-universe British Invasion hits. Back then, he was a surrealist poet obsessed with flooding the marketplace with his music — today, he's a surrealist poet obsessed with flooding the marketplace with his music. Bob Pollard endures.
But there are peaks and valleys in his career. The obvious move is to point to his early-to-mid-'90s run with his band Guided by Voices (the one that produced his most beloved record, "Bee Thousand") as being a high-water mark. The deflated "Please Be Honest" is a low, as is the solo Pollard record "Superman Was a Rocker." Honestly, though, looking at Pollard's discography is like looking at a really good baseball player's stat sheet. No, it's not all hits, but it's not all strikeouts. There are plenty of bunts and blooper singles and home runs, and it all adds up to a very high batting average. He's not quite the star player. He won't make the Hall of Fame. But he's as reliable a journeyman as anyone could want.
There's a new Guided by Voices record that just came out. It's called "Surrender Your Poppy Field," which is just as surrealistic and odd as one expects a GBV album title to be. Going in, it's hard to not feel a sense of here-we-go-again, but it's also hard to not be intrigued to hear if this is gonna be one of the Bob albums where he sounds like he sang the whole thing drunk and in one take, or if it's gonna be one of the inspired ones. What's surprising is: this record is surprising.
Who'da thunk it? The reasons would surely be difficult to pin down, but "Surrender" somehow manages to evoke the old, 4-track-tape GBV of legend while also retaining the professionalism their last several records have demonstrated. It also subtly sneaks into new areas for the band. Here, Pollard's weirdness sits comfortably next to his desire to be in The Who. Here, his melodicism butts up against his need to be arcane and inscrutable. It all goes in the pot, and it all makes sense, somehow. It feels improbably like an evolution.
Songs like "Volcano" or "Arthur Has Business Elsewhere" don't sound like anything but Pollard, but the current GBV lineup (probably the band's best ever, if we're being truthful) makes a meal out of the songs. One moment, the band is digging into grungy power chords, and the next, they're doing calliope music. We're in stereo, and then we're in mono. Choice overdubs, tempo changes, whistling, synths — the kitchen sink. It's all here. It's probably not the best GBV album, but it manages to surprise, whether it's in production, performance, or composition. There's at least a few moments in each song that will make the longtime Pollard fan sit up and take notice. This, in itself, is a kind of amazing achievement.
There's something here that the last few GBV records — and these were good records — didn't have. It's a mood, a feel. "Surrender Your Poppy Field" is a relaxed, fun, confident batch of songs played by people who are clearly into making them the best they can without being too precious about it, and it proves that Robert Pollard somehow — somehow — still has a few new tricks up his sleeve.
Artist: Guided by Voices
Album: "Surrender Your Poppy Field"
Produced by: Travis Harrison
Personnel: Robert Pollard (vocals), Doug Gillard (guitar), Kevin March (drums), Bobby Bare Jr. (guitar), Mark Shue (bass)
Tony Bennett reviews albums for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.