With Guided By Voices back releasing records — one in January, with a second already planned for June, along with a bunch of singles — you may assume that Robert Pollard’s solo material will return to its side-project status, as something lesser than the main thing, as another curious release to tide us over.
Mouseman Cloud, however, makes a case that Pollard has been making for years now — that his solo work is the main thing, and that, like much of Pollard’s recent work (see Lord of the Birdcage), this is the album casting the shadow, not the the one hiding coldly within another’s shade.
On Let’s Go Eat the Factory, the latest Guided By Voices record, Pollard delivers solid tunes, but sounds workmanlike as he resumes his role as frontman. It’s the sound of guys rediscovering an old chemistry, and often the album feels a little hemmed in, even stiff, despite its eccentricities. Mouseman Cloud, on the other hand, is Pollard completely cut loose. Even the production of the record sounds brighter than Let’s Go Eat the Factory. Guitars crunch brightly, the drums charge forward, and Pollard’s voice has its faux-Brit sweetness turned up to 11. Here Pollard knocks out 17 songs in just over a half an hour, and it feels like quickfire inspiration, not a terse, prescripted approach to album making.
There are the kind of bouncy power-pop numbers Pollard writes in his sleep like “Obvious #1” and “Doctor Time” and “Aspirin Moon,” but it isn’t just the energy of the songs that makes this album so damn good. Pollard rediscovers his love of twisting language, of shaping phrases that are inherently meaningless into hooks that catch you so deeply. You may not know what they mean, but you sure as hell know how they feel. “Grandfather Blues continues to shoot up the six o’clock news,” he bleats over and over on “Continue to Break” and the phrase takes on its own power through repetition, not to mention it rolls off the tongue pretty damn smoothly. On the towering rocker “No Tools,” Pollard slant rhymes “Crab Nebula” with “Caligula” and somehow fits “onomatopoeia” into the melody. The wordplay here is downright rollicking, as you can hear Pollard pushing his usual oddball imagery into new corners of his mind. Sometimes, his love of language hooks onto one short phrase — “Mother’s Milk and Magnets” mostly repeats the chorus for the entire song — and he pulls you into his fascination with the sweet sound of words.
But this is no mere exercise in language, the music itself is as far ranging and exploratory as Pollard’s words. From the thundering “Picnic Drums” to the lean, overcast chords of “Science Magazine,” to the sunburst propulsion of “Aspirin Moon,” Pollard’s long-time collaborator Todd Tobias is at the top of his game. His production is clean but never buffed to shine too bright, and his playing reflects the energy of Pollard’s words. The two have worked painstakingly over the past six or seven years to hone their production sound, and on Mouseman Cloud they show further evidence that they have nailed it.
Despite his inhuman prolificacy, and his singular approach to songwriting, Pollard never makes the same record twice, and this buckshot spray of quick pop tunes is another wild success in his constantly twisting variations on a theme. It’s no small feat that, this far into his career, Pollard hasn’t tired of his approach, and continues to push it in subtle and sometimes undefinable ways. That the energy is still there — and at an irrepresible high — on this record, is impressive enough. But on top of that, these songs are good enough to make one thing clear: GBV or not, when you’re listening to Mouseman Cloud, you are listening to Pollard’s main thing.