While Robert Pollard may not be as intimidating as The Fall‘s Mark E Smith, in terms of sheer longevity, creativity and output, he’s easily America’s equivalent.
Honey Locust Honky Tonk is Pollard’s 38th album when taking into account Guided By Voices‘ back catalogue and, much like MES and The Fall, the end product in each case can be either terrific or patchy. Nevertheless, you can guarantee that once/twice/thrice a year Pollard has something to give to us, as the deluge of decent GBV and solo material in the last 18 months obviously shows.
While Pollard’s career certainly isn’t concise, brevity is often a major feature of his work, with 17 songs packed into 34 minutes here. Album opener He Requested Things, at a comparatively long two minutes and 39 seconds, sounds initially like a slower tempo Things That I Will Keep, with the cleanly produced acoustic guitar contrasting Pollard’s lo-fi and occasionally indistinguishable vocals (nothing necessarily new there). Yet unlike some of Pollard and GBV’s work there’s a subtlety, with a gradual build-up from acoustic to full-blown guitar producing something pleasantly unexpected.
Strange And Pretty Day is quintessential four-track lo-fi Pollard, with fuzzy sounding and repetitive piano and equally crackly vocals. But what Pollard can do where others often struggle is put the heartfelt into lo-fi – he is a custodian of lo-fi, arguably – bringing with it a purity the medium is perfectly suited for. This is especially when he delivers lyrics such as “it’s a strange and pretty day… in a forest where you are, not a factory closing down, all eyes are on the dream of being lost and found” with a deep and thoughtful sincerity.
The fading out of Strange And Pretty Day into the 51-second Suit Minus The Middle is, again, surprising – from the intensely sincere into something clean sounding but, again, indistinguishable as far as vocals are concerned. There’s a paradox in there somewhere.
Still, Suit Minus The Middle begins a run of four songs that blend together Pollard’s obsession with the “four Ps: pop, punk, psych and prog.” In fact, Drawing A Picture does have a wonderfully psychedelic, Syd Barrett quality to it, while Who Buries The Undertaker sounds typically GBV with its snappy hooks but with a spiky, punky, Wire like edge to it.
From there, Pollard goes a little David Bowie on us with She Hides In Black, with guitar and bass riffs reminiscent of John, I’m Only Dancing. The Bowie angle also reappears late on with It Disappears In The Least Likely Hands (We May Never Not Know), which musically could feature on Heroes or even The Next Day. These certainly – and easily – represent the first ‘P’ Pollard swears by very well indeed.
Inbetween the Bowieness, I Killed A Man Who Looks Like You’s lyrics present oblique and mysterious references to a “sacrificed prodigious son”, a man killed by mistake and the curious lyric “wasted man will take a look, a mirrored image he mistook”. While clocking in at under two minutes, its lyrical content makes it sound much longer – and that’s no bad thing, since you return to it repeatedly to try and fathom what it is that Pollard’s going on about.
Meanwhile, Real Fun Is No-One’s Monopoly is a grandiose if somewhat foreboding track, with its thumping toms and Pollard’s chanted advice: “Real fun is no-one’s monopoly… good times with usual perversity, have some at this university, learn how to handle adversity, now.” What’s prompted this outpouring who knows, but there’s something statesmanlike about Pollard that means you take it on board, even if the meaning is beyond one’s ken.
Album closer Airs, which surprises by running for over three and a half minutes, is a splendid ending, at times veering into power pop, appearing to be some sort of meditation on life, especially with lyrics such as “running through the cycle knowing you’ll find yourself” and “searching, waiting, seizing, hating the long life chain”. Again, like Strange And Pretty Day, there is a deep sincerity to this.
Because Pollard is so prolific, there are arguably times where he’s so eager to release material that the quality is inconsistent. This isn’t the case with Honey Locust Honky Tonk. It’s a consistent and, at times, deeply thoughtful record that is pleasantly familiar while offering occasional surprises. This easily stands up with the better end of Pollard’s work.