There’s an undeniable allure to Pollard’s breezy, unbothered attitude.
Ever since they broke up their beloved “classic” lineup in 1997, following a string of acclaimed records that included ’90s touchstones like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, the line on veteran indie rockers Guided By Voices has remained more or less the same. Robert Pollard and his rotating cast of supporting musicians have been pumping out a steady stream of songs for over 30 years, and for devoted fans, part of the appeal is digging for the gems buried in that ever-expanding pile of serviceable rock tunes. Pollard seems to possess a total lack of editorial restraint, or more likely he just sees no reason to keep his songs to himself; since the band’s first release in 1986, they’ve put out 23 full-length albums, and if you include Pollard’s solo work and the vast assortment of side projects issued under goofy alternate monikers, that more than quadruples. Inevitably, with such a wealth of music there are bound to be duds, but even now, more than two decades past the band’s generally agreed-upon creative peak, when they hit they still really hit, and Surrender Your Poppy Field, their latest, offers its fair share of pleasures.
In 2019 the band put out an astonishing three full-length albums, one of which was the hulking 32-song double LP Zeppelin Over China; that’s 68 songs over the course of a single year, more than plenty of bands have in their entire catalogue. Surrender Your Poppy Field comes only four months after Sweating the Plague, and it falls more or less in line with last year’s slate. The overall tone is playful, with Pollard and his mates mixing in lo-fi peculiarities –– brittle guitar squiggles, shimmering vocal effects, four-track tape hiss, etc –– with higher caliber studio production. Singles “Volcano” and “Man Called Blunder” register as perfect examples of the late-era GBV track –– low-key, almost unremarkably pleasant rockers that manage to win you over with their uniquely catchy hooks.
And still, three decades and thousands of songs deep into their career, the band still has the capacity to surprise. One particular stand-out is “Cul-De-Sac Kids,” a nostalgic ode to youthful, summertime joy (“Cul-de-sac kids throw the best parties/ Playing outside … Their morals abandoned/ With parents away”) that becomes something more with the gorgeous string arrangement that suddenly kicks in late in the song. The delicacy of the harmonies strike a contrast to the lyrics, which take on a more solemn quality as things draw to a close: “Tears of angels can’t relieve/ The terrors outside the living world/ But rightly choosing a smoother ride.”
Pollard’s songwriting has long had a shameless simplicity. While many of his indie rock peers strive to pack each of their songs with an array of disparate ideas, Pollard has always been content to take one basic piece –– an evocative turn of phrase, a cool guitar riff, a catchy melody –– and let that single musical idea form the entirety of a song. Vintage quickies like “Gold Star For Robot Boy” and “Peep-Hole” exemplify the heights that these sorts of tracks can reach, and Surrender Your Poppy Field has similar delights, like the minute-long “Whoa Nelly,” built around a lovely little string arpeggio, or “Cat Beats A Drum,” which feels like it was written for the express purpose of arriving at the amusingly nonsensical image that inspires its title.
As with most of the GBV-adjacent output of recent years, it would be difficult to make the case for Surrender Your Poppy Field as a truly substantial record, or even a particularly special one, but it would be just as difficult for any indie rock fan not to derive from it some amount of pleasure. And in fact it could be argued that this lack of substance is integral to Pollard’s charm. The endless flood that he puts out into the world year after year is a testament to his seeming disregard for strategic commercialism; one gets the sense that he is simply making music for music’s sake, and there’s an undeniable allure to his breezy, unbothered attitude.