Review Summary: Enigmatic, catchy and timeless, Bee Thousand is pretty much the definition of a classic.
There's a reason. Here we are, in 2010, coming up on the 16th anniversary of Bee Thousand
's release, and the unlikely triumph of an album still holds its place as being one of the most mysterious, captivating, catchy and consistently excellent rock records ever released. At first, the success story seems a bit perplexing: Robert Pollard, resident indie-rock mad genius, and his buddies were close to breaking up their just-for-fun lo-fi ensemble Guided By Voices, but wanted to throw one last thing out there; something to let them remember all the good times they'd had. Pollard, being insanely prolific even relatively early into his career (Bee Thousand
was studio album 7 of 16), culled the album's majority from reshaping and rewriting some of the band's earlier demos, which, logically, should make the album come off as a sort of compilation entry; say, a "Greatest Hits" or "B-Sides" as a farewell for a band that was just barely hanging on at the time.
Thank god Bee Thousand
is nothing like that.
Recording at various locations (usually the houses or basements of various band members) on consumer-level four-track recorders, the members of Guided By Voices made something that, despite being rooted in some of the most basic tenets of rock music, felt exciting and new. The album didn't feel at all like a look back on the band's past, but rather an introspection into the future, excitingly expanding the band's horizons. However, the backstory of Bee Thousand
and its relativity on the rest of the band's discography is not the reason so many of those with an allegiance to the indie-rock camp adore it: for that, look no further than the music itself.
contains a surprisingly abundant 20 tracks, and not one song on the damn thing misses its mark. Each track rushes through seemingly endless hooks and choruses that just get better and better and finish up the job almost as soon as they start it (which explains the album's average track length of about 1:49). Though not all follow the same structure, all of them are stripped down to their essentials: a hook, a verse perhaps, a few repetitions of a chorus, and then it ends there. At first, this kind of structural abbreviation seems like a by-product of the band's laziness, but it soon reveals itself to be a clever technique that Pollard employs for the sole purpose of getting everything
he wants to on the record.
As it turns out, this decision was what gave Bee Thousand
its distinct air of spontaneous brilliance; that the songs are so numerous and make such brief rounds gives the album instant replay value and allows the listener to take in new things every time they give it a whirl. The album's idiosyncratic, dilapidated recording quality only augments this quality, allowing there to be a sort of "unplanned" aspect to not only the songwriting but also the way the songs are played (check out the inadvertent guitar-track drop of lead-off track "Hardcore UFO's" to witness a perfect representation). This kind of quality was fitting for the album, and many of its tracks are better for it: Pollard's "Smothered In Hugs", with its wall of crunchy guitars, feels overwhelmingly large, and "Peep-Hole" has an air of precise weightlessness.
The spontaneous aspect of the album is no coincidence: combined with the low-quality recording process, many of the songs were not only first takes but first plays
, Pollard or perhaps even Sprout thought up a song, felt through the chords, and recorded the result. Normally, this would be quite the problem, but the whole ridiculous process that went into making Bee Thousand
is saved by one thing: the songwriting.
While his hooks and choruses put shame to many of the half-assed bands of the '90s indie-rock scene, Pollard's lyrics also have his unmistakable signature on them, being mysterious, childish and really ***ing weird. The songs have titles like "Tractor Rape Chain", "Smothered In Hugs", and "Kicker of Elves", but somehow the lyrics themselves extend past the childish sense of humor that prides itself on being "random", as these titles would seem to suggest. On the soul-baring "Peep-Hole", Pollard admits that he is peering into someone else's house, but rather than creepy, the song comes off as touching and real. On "Echos Myron", he flips a sentiment ("And all of a sudden I’m relatively sane, with everything to lose and nothing to gain") on its head simply by adding the phrase "or something like that", as if he just quoted a line he doesn't quite understand, or perhaps is just flippantly poking fun at the supposed "depth" of the line before. Either way, the line is indicative of the kind of mystique the whole album has: upon inspection, almost every line of each song has about a thousand possible interpretations, and though most of them don't make sense, trying to figure it out is half the fun.
Though Robert Pollard acts as the creative force throughout and pens most of the tracks, other members also make significant contributions. The calm compositions of Tobin Sprout often complement Pollard's more frenzied writings quite well, and Sprout even manages to write some of the best songs on the album: "Awful Bliss", while tantalizingly short, is the track that gets the closest to reaching Pollard's goal of sounding like "Beatles bootlegs", and "Ester's Day" is, with the exception of its abnormal intro, one of the most purely beautiful moments on the album.
Perhaps I've overlooked what is maybe the most important aspect of the album: I never get tired of it. Ever. There's something in these 36 minutes, be it the hooks, the number of songs packed in, or the enigmatic lyrics, that allow me to listen to it at any given time and place. My feelings for this album are also conflicting: Bee Thousand
is the kind of album I want to be my secret, but, puzzlingly, it's also the album that I want to show all of my friends because I know they will love it. It's the kind of album I want to write, but also the one that I know I could never write. In a world of depthless art that serves no purpose other than to be buried after years of insignificance, Bee Thousand
feels refreshingly timeless. Countless listens later, I now realize that this is an album that I would have loved as a child, this is an album I love right now, and, if all goes well, this will be an album I will love in my old age. You can't ask for much more than that.