The more Robert Pollard churns out post-GBV records — and there’s no sign of him stopping– the more it seems he’s island-hopping from muse to muse. While the quality had been consistently high for the most part, the albums themselves tend to be all over the place. Space City Kicks harkened back to early-GBV ramshackle records, a sound which coincided nicely with the “classic” line-up’s reunion tour. But We All Got Out of the Army, and a handful of other records, updated the 20-some-odd pop-song record to make it sound bright and lush. Other discs– Moses on a Snail in particular– stretched Pollard’s quick pop songs out and slowed them down. The results were often solid, though perhaps not as exciting as his more charging work.
Somewhere in between all these we’ve got Lord of the Birdcage. It’s one of Pollard’s standard 12-song rock records, but it actually shifts around quite a bit, and with a great amount of success. As solid as his recent output has been, this is one of his finest post-GBV solo releases. It’s got some of the most fiery under-two-minute gems Pollard has put out in a while (see “You Can’t Challenge Forward Progress” and “Holy Fire”), but also hits the mark on bigger moodier songs far better than Moses on a Snail did.
“In a Circle” is a soaring Pollard ballad, with some of his rangiest and finest singing on the record. It may start with a simple acoustic guitar, but other shimmering guitars layer on top of it and cymbals crash in huge waves across the song while Pollard shifts from mumbled verses to Daltrey-sized choruses. “The Focus (Burning)” is much shorter, but far spacier and it works as a nice downshift after the herky-jerky rock “You Sold Me Quickly.”
When not travelling in soaring mid-tempo tunes and brief pop snippets, Pollard knocks a few power-pop gems out of the park. “Garden Smarm” and “Ribbon of Fat” are as catchy as pop songs get, and Pollard’s sometimes-off-key voice stays tuneful and sweet throughout. Closer “Ash Ript Telecopter” somehow takes the rock side of the album and meshes it perfectly with the lush layers of tracks like “In a Circle” so that Lord of the Birdcage feels, in the end, like two sides of Pollard on a great collision course.
The selling point here is supposed to be that this is the first record where Pollard shapes his songs from poems he had written, but in the end these sound like the kind of songs Pollard has always written. They may seem a bit more linear (oddly) and domestic that older songs — there are mentions of lawnmowers and 9:00 meetings — but overall this is the same kind of oddball wordplay and effortless melodies we’ve always heard from Pollard. And while there may not be a ton of surprises from his solo work at this point, this is still an awfully strong set from a guy who’s pretty tough to beat when he’s on his game.