When Peyton Manning returned to the NFL this year after missing last year due to injury, we saw flashes of greatness in those first couple games. There were bumps — those three picks against Atlanta, for example — but we watched him recapturing his greatness, getting back into the flow. It’s not that he was bad, or even really rusty, early on. He just wasn’t at 100%, and well, now we’ve seen him get back to the business of being a Hall of Fame quarterback.
You could trace a similar arc for Guided By Voices in 2012. They opened the year with the solid return album, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, then followed this summer with the shadowy but more self-assured Class Clown Spots a UFO. But now, with their third album of the year, The Bears for Lunch, Guided By Voices is all the way back. It’s the best record of this trilogy of new records, and also manages to top Pollard’s great solo stuff from this year — on albums Mouseman Cloud and Jack Sells the Cow.
Where the first two albums took on a kind of bizarre edge, some eccentric fuzz to coat the pop sensibilities of Pollard and songwriting foil Tobin Sprout, The Bears for Lunch is unabashedly, and deeply, sweet pop music. It’s capable of rocking, make no mistake. Punky opener “King Arthur the Red” makes that much clear, and then later songs like “Hangover Child” take that crunch and weave a more intricate, hooky arrangement. That song meshes the high-flying layers of early-’00s GBV records, but filters it through this version’s lean, garage band sensibility. It also draws a clearer line to the Sprout-led standouts here, like the sweet whisper of “The Corners are Glowing” or the more fiery but no less sugary stomp of “Skin to Skin Combat.” Sprout is at his bittersweet best here — and he’s been the most consistent songwriter in GBV this year — but Pollard joins in to great effect. His eccentric piano ballad, “The Military School Dance Dismissal,” seems at first like some brief curio, until the melody cuts through the watery vocal effects and totally wins you over. Other great moments from Pollard here, like single “She Lives in an Airport,” finds a guy who once begged us to watch him jumpstart grabbing on to the coattails of the titular girl. It’s a sweet turn, one that shifts Pollard’s blustering pop charm to something more introspective, where his subject actually gets the focus and not his keen wordplay or deep hook — though those are there too.
The best thing about The Bears for Lunch, though, is that the production seems to finally fit this permutation of the band. Gone is the self-consciously not-quite-lo-fi of those past records and in its place is a much more believable fuzz. The fuzz here seems to come from the levels of amps, from the way instruments are plays, the way words are sung, and not from production treatments. As such, the band let’s its tight melodies and subtly complex structures come to the surface (see brilliant closer “Everywhere is Miles From Everywhere”). The results are the band’s most cohesive record this year, even as the songs do sometimes get in and get out with their trademark brevity.
For the “classic” line-up, it’s no small feat to finally make the next record in the lineage of Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand. Like those albums, The Bears for Lunch surprises from quick song to quick song (even though we know this trick well now) and maintains an overall cohesion and distinct mood. Those two albums, Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand, get mentioned together all the time, but if the approach to those albums is the same, the finished products are wholly different in sound, in movement, in texture. The Bears for Lunch falls into line with other great GBV records by remembering what made the band great in the first place, and then giving us its own spin on it. It’s easy to beef up the fidelity when you’re writing pop songs this good. So farewell to any questions of rust on the reassembled Guided By Voices. They’re back to writing and recording like Hall of Famers. Here’s hoping it continues in 2013.