September 9, 2004

The End of an Era

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There was certainly a time when the mere suggestion of a final Guided by Voices album seemed ludicrous. Just last year, for example, they released their latest LP, Earthquake Glue, a greatest hits record, and their third box set. In addition to this, ever-prolific lead singer Robert Pollard released yet another solo album.

But this April, Pollard professed to be pulling the plug on Guided by Voices after nearly two decades and twenty albums. While no one has doubted the seriousness of his claim, many have doubted its significance, since — alongside the abundance of solo material Pollard has released — GBV has become something of a revolving cast of supporting characters for Pollard dating back to 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars. Even if Half Smiles of the Decomposed may not signal the end of Robert Pollard as a recording artist, the passing of one of indie’s all time greatest bands is a noteworthy occasion nonetheless.

The album starts on a high note with “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking).” A bombastic opener, “Everybody” sets the tone for much of the album; Pollard seems determined to finish with a bang. Other songs such as “Gonna Never Have to Die,” “The Closets of Henry,” and “Asphyxiated Circle” keep very much with this theme. The third track, “Girls of Wild Strawberries,” is perhaps the album’s highlight. Former member and key collaborator Tobin Sprout returns to contribute driving yet delicate acoustic guitars which carry the song, an infectious sing-along characteristic of GBV’s finest work. As a whole, the first half of the album is very strong.

Unfortunately, beginning with “Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial,” Half Smiles undergoes a bit of a lull midway which plagues the album through much of its second half. While several of the songs represent a return toward the lo-fi sound that GBV helped pioneer, they are generally long-winded and cause one to pine for the days when Pollard consistently needed only ninety seconds to introduce a hook to the listener that could last a lifetime.

In Pollard’s defense, many of the criticisms that GBV have faced in recent years (including some in the previous paragraph) stem largely from both the band’s sterling reputation and staggering output. When you’ve released as much material as Pollard has — much of it being excellent — otherwise good songs tend to be viewed as mediocre. It’s interesting to wonder how Half Smiles would be received were it released ten years ago at the same time as Bee Thousand. While it most likely would not have achieved the same amount of acclaim as its predecessor, its sound wouldn’t have been so rehashed by Pollard or his many followers. Regardless, Half Smiles ends with a song worthy of its band’s legacy. “Huffman Prairie Flying Field” is joyous, melodic, and uplifting — three of GBV’s defining traits. As it closes with an extended fade-out of Pollard belting the words “far too long,” “Huffman” is an appropriate denouement to the career of one of the best American bands in recent history, for Guided by Voices’ influence is far too vast to be quantified.

Archived article by Ross McGowan
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer