Only death can slow Robert Pollard.
Perhaps the only thing more frustrating to the uninitiated Guided by Voices listener than the sheer glut of available music in the band’s discography is the lopsided hit-to-miss ratio. Robert Pollard’s tendency to write and record entire albums before even stepping out to get the morning paper off his driveway makes it nearly impossible to separate the tossed-off crap from the nuggets of bite-sized gold. Every hit feels too fleeting, while the ones that fall short are over too quickly to warrant complaint. The surprising quality of the group’s post-reunion output makes the prospect of even exploring GBV, much less being a dedicated fan, starts to seem like a part-time job.
Add to this impressive pile Space Gun, the latest rock-solid entry in the band’s canon. The title track opens the record with the screeching noise of what sounds like reel-to-reel tape being rewound, but this swift throwback to Pollard’s lo-fi roots immediately gives way to a meaty sound that typifies the entire album. Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare, Jr.’s guitars churn out a bar band riff before occasionally spinning off into brief curlicues of almost delicate distortion. Pollard’s lyrics are suitably goofy, fitting within his wheelhouse of UFO fascination, but the bullish instrumentation adds a giddy punch to what might otherwise been loony speculation. Pollard’s off-kilter lyrics are on full display throughout; “I Love Kangaroos” is an obsessive love ode to smuggling oneself to Australia to be with everyone’s favorite marsupials, while “King Flute” breaks out the jangly guitars for a neo-psychedelic tale of a Pied Piper figure whose mastery of his instrument hypnotized the throngs.
The band’s fragmented songwriting has always contained the pieces of numerous underground bands, particularly R.E.M., but the influence of the Athens quartet on this album is especially pronounced. “Ark Technician,” a quaint blend of acoustic guitars and faint swells of molasses-thick bass that could have come right out of the Out of Time sessions, kicks off an extended stretch in which GBV craft a kind of greatest hits for all the best songs that Michael Stipe never wrote. There’s the brittle post-punk twinkle of “See My Field,” the Document-era stomp of “Liar’s Box,” and the Accelerate energy of “Daily Get-Ups.” Accelerate could make for perhaps the most fitting comparison point for the album as a whole, a concise, loud return to what was never quite the band’s form but nonetheless feels like a spike of young, hungry attitude.
Pollard certainly sounds fired up throughout. His voice, clear and impassioned, adds the proper heft to tracks like “Liar’s Box,” where he flits between personal horror and detached observation of some unnamed conflict, or “Hudson Rake,” a thudding number about stumbling across a body in a park. “Sport Component National” has the spunk of early-aughts Fall, a scrambled dispatch that warps from casual excitement to dark foreboding so smoothly it’s hard to mark the moment of transition. Closer “Evolution Circus” even finds Pollard on a hopeful note, albeit not before clinically overseeing the mass destruction of Christopher Columbus in anticipation of a better future. Mark Shue rumbles underneath Pollard as his soaring lines constantly fold back into calmer statements of intent and resolve.
As ever, highlights will come down to a matter of personal preference. The blink-and-miss-it sneer of “Grey Spat Matters” could be either a fun bit of punk or a forgettable blurt of a riff. “Colonel Paper” is an amusingly impressionistic saga of dumpster-diving for KFC or distractingly goofy. What is noticeable, though, is the level of consistency in this release. Advances in cheap recording technology long ago eroded the unpredictable oscillations in GBV’s track-by-track sound, and the band matches that tonal stability with a generally settled groove of twangy but muscly indie rock. The group has always presented obstacles to efforts to rank their work or offer accessible primers into their full range, and with Space Gun they find yet more strong micro-pop to drive playlists makers mad with curational possibility. Only death can slow Robert Pollard, apparently, and even when it comes for him he’ll probably be found with demos for another four LPs.