Robert Pollard is writing songs so fast that it’s nearly impossible to keep up. As the leader of Dayton, Ohio’s recently-reformed Guided By Voices, he’s put out 17 full-length albums and 16 EPs since 1986’s Forever Since Breakfast, which include indie-rock classics like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. As a solo artist, he’s released 18 LPs. Then there’s the myriad musical collaborations of his Fading Captain Series, which he started in the late ’90s to avoid flooding the market with Guided By Voices material. Even his diehards fans, of whom there are plenty, are having trouble sorting through it all to find the gems.
Pollard’s latest solo record, Mouseman Cloud, has more than a few flashes of brilliance, but it’s hardly the best album of his career. In fact, it’s not even the best thing he’s done in 2012; January’s Guided By Voices record, Let’s Go Eat The Factory, was catchier and more consistent. Nonetheless, Mouseman is an enjoyable record that finds Pollard sticking to his guns: surreal lyrics, irresistible hooks and punchy rhythms.
The album starts strong with “Obvious #1,” a syncopated throwback to Guided By Voices’ “Jar Of Cardinals.” From the first thirty seconds, it’s clear that Pollard’s still got a rare gift for writing pop songs. The cascading verse melody, backed by multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias’s propulsive drumming, will stick in your head for days. It’s another token of the type of tossed-off genius that has made Pollard an indie-rock legend.
Up next is “Picnic Drums,” a slow-burning compound-time rocker that builds for a couple of minutes before dying down and resurrecting itself as a jaunty straight-time anthem. Then there’s the splendid title track, which may have the most baffling opening line in the Pollard catalog (“pigs in the oyster dip/squeal for the oxygen drip”). The song’s arrangement is the most sonically interesting on the album; it begins with a call and response between Pollard’s distorted guitar and Tobias’s synthesized mallet percussion and ends in a squall of overdubbed guitar noodling that sounds like it could have been recorded at Guitar Center during peak hours.
While the rest of the album is full of great ideas like these, it quickly runs out of interesting ways to develop them. Of course, it’s a joy to hear Pollard rattle off his uniquely bizarre rhymes (a favorite from the album: rhyming “Crab Nebula” with “onomatopoeia”), and of course, a new batch of melodies from Pollard is falling manna for Guided By Voices fanatics. But the key to Pollard’s prolificacy is also his tragic flaw as a songwriter: a notorious anti-perfectionist, he spends most of his time creating new ideas rather than organizing old ones. It’s as though he were constantly being led around by his ideas (guided by them, if you will).
The result is a bunch of songs with lazy endings and loads of half-tapped potential. Even though some work fine in context, especially “Smacks of Euphoria” and “Science Magazine,” the album as a whole wears a bit thin once you notice how many songs end with a nonsense lyric on loop. It’s a testament to Pollard’s genius that the thing is still worth your time, but I’d recommend Guided By Voices neophytes check out Propeller or even Let’s Go Eat The Factory first.
Printed on Tuesday, April 10, 2012 as: Prolific songwriter fails to fulfill potential