Review Summary: Joking about writing a good album
The thing about Robert Pollard’s music is that be it at the expense of critical reception, Indie-star reputation and whatever else, it demands not to be designed. This isn’t simply a dreamy-eyed Guided By Voices fan talking up the golden days (well, it is), but what links all of his music together is simply the fact that he doesn’t care – he doesn’t care if he damages his cred, he doesn’t care if he makes a fool out of himself, and he certainly doesn’t care if no one finds his stand-up comedy album funny. It’s cliché rock-star stuff in this sense, but it’s not in that he also doesn’t care if he suddenly turns the whole thing on its head – the same guy who released the 28 track Alien Lanes
has also sat down and written two seriously ‘normal’ ten track releases during 2008-2009, and where he’s a carefree spirit stumbling into the studio to write something of the moment and sporadic, he later becomes an indecisive fool who just wants to be given the role of musician, be it at the expense of half a fanbase. At times it’s stuff that asks us to forget the measuring stick we have for every release, but at other times it’s stuff that just wants to stand up to Bee Thousand
and the aforementioned Alien Lanes
and say just as well that it’s by the same drunkard.
doesn’t know what it wants to be out of the two. Both length and track listing are earnestly similar to 90’s Voices records, the alcohol consumption is predictably similar and just two tracks dare surpass the three-minute rule – it might just come the closest to appearing ‘classic-Pollard’ since his first solo effort, which went for a similar 22 song deal. The tragedy is that it simply can’t channel the sound
of Pollard, or at least not forever. What comes out instead is watery and only distinguishable in the new surge of his sound because of how bog-standard it is – almost every track lacks thrill, with no typical boisterous announcement in “Things Have Changed” and nothing emotive about the wannabe sleazy “Architectural Nightmare Man”, where Pollard has decided nothing should sound like a ‘goodbye’ when you’ll be back in two months.
Where Pollard may have been at his best for, as expert James Greer puts it, recording albums for “leave out the beer, about ten dollars”, he was never renowned for thinking up albums in just ten minutes, even if it seemed that way. The illusion of effortlessness certainly doesn’t stick here, and this definitely isn’t the ‘lazy’ label Indie-rock fans have come to dote upon; when the champion of quirk and irony can’t even spell out to his fans that “Hippsville (Where the Frisbees Fly Forever)” is a parody of well, something, don’t expect the guitar-rock that accompanies it to sound any better, or even with any better intention.
If previous albums haven’t already damned his solo career to a ‘best-of’ fit, Elephant Jokes
certainly will have. For 2009’s v2, my picks would be “When a Man Walks Away” and “Parts of Your World”, and without a flash of doubt – these are two jingly hits crammed so tightly together that it’s almost too easy to wish the album away as a rock-star’s revival. Their triumph over everything else is that they don’t feel cut down to size for the sake of it – both actually feel as if Pollard hit a limit with them and left it at that. It’s maddening to extents unknown to think that brief sparks of textbook-Pollard like this exist and flourish when so much more of this material can come out of him under the frustration of writer’s block. Take other moments of forced material in his history: it was hard to see the buckling pressure with Half Smiles Of The Decomposed
because he made it look so easy, as he did with (hey, his first solo effort) Not In My Airforce
. Both albums boasted what this album boasts – a supposed sheer lack of compromise – and also what it does not, which is the premise of one-or-two-dozen listenable, loveable tracks.
And so once more Pollard is the man in charge of not being in charge. Elephant Jokes
repeats the worst and most frequent of his rules of thumb when going solo: create a no nonsense, uncompromising, infinite rock album. As if that hasn’t got boring enough to spell out for any fan – their player littered with dozens of projects, hundreds of albums and thousands of songs, most of which span the amount of time it takes for Pollard to crack open a beer – they now may have to admit their king has defeated himself. What the white flag brings about is a Pollard album completely popless, but even more disturbing, paradoxical: is the soft rock renegade fighting for his freedom to do whatever whenever, or now testing the waters to see if he’ll ever catch up to himself again? Here, he designs himself and his music by trying too hard not to try at all, and with an album as dull as Elephant Jokes
, the glory days seem long gone. Forget the ‘do what you want’ argument - has being prolific killed Pollard?