Review Summary: Tell my foes I'm Captain tonight..
I spent all of my early 20’s in and around bands, soaking and stewing in all the surplus of genres that can generally be swept under the umbrella term of ‘underground punk music.’ What I learned fairly quickly was that in those circles, a separate reverie was usually appointed to bands and songwriters that were classified as more ‘abstract,’ ‘experimental’ – noise music. What I also learned was that leaving aside the few truly talented singular acts on the scene, the bulk of people trying their hand at noise music were doing it simply because they wanted to be in band, but didn’t have the knack or the chops to write a melody.
It’s easy enough to see why being in a noise band has such an undying allure. Since it tends to paint with crazed strokes, noise or experimental music comes with a skewed grade curve. More simply, it’s easier to be considered if not good then at least charismatic, while remaining bad. But as intricate or masturbatory as it may be, abstracted music is an inward process. It’s a moment of making something highly personalized and then inviting the listener into your realm. Pop music by contrast, is an outward process. You’re writing for someone else, for everyone in fact, touching on basic pleasure triggers. And though that may and often does quickly spiral into pandering, it is also inherently more difficult to do. In that sense only, there’s much more to writing a song like Shake It Off
than there is to conceiving something like The Seer
or Kid A
There are easy instances of bands that can walk that golden middle between highly-individualized and abjectly appealing. The Who’s post-1967 catalogue, even as it grew in scope and meaning, retained that primal moment of having a catchy, easily-digestible skeleton. The Velvet Underground rooted their entire philosophy in mutating pop songs into mangled test tube babies. Sonic Youth in their glory days mastered that aspect better than anyone. Not only was their image and music unabashedly eminent and cool, it also gave just enough slack as far as traditional songwriting goes to allow ‘squares’ some proper enjoyment without having to force it.
This is where we come to Robert Pollard - an anarchic, charismatic, inward man who has seemingly spent his lifetime in search of the perfect pop song. A pop song that’s invariably decentralized and demented by his noise penchant. Not in My Airforce
was his first solo release, one of many to follow, albums that would come just as randomly and quickly as Guided by Voices’ own output.
Here is a quick run through the timeline surrounding Airforce
. In 1996, the year it was released, Guided by Voices were riding out the hottest streak in indie history. Bee Thousand
was already being touted as a masterpiece of the genre, capturing the respect and adoration of college radio, big-publication critics and the DIY scene. Alien Lanes
and that year’s Under the Bushes
would cement GBV as an enduring presence, capable of re-sparking that genius at a moment’s notice. They were also standing on the cusp of a winsome run of albums and EP’s to close out the century. In the middle of all that pomp and laurels, Pollard dropped a solo album, unceremoniously and sans
is casually great, the picture of a man with a hot hand. These minute-long songs shuffle in one after another, hitting the pleasure centers of your temporal lobe with an irresistible pop hook, then bracing it by making the songs collapse in fits of noise, empty frequencies or sudden stops. Whatever capacities he has as a pop writer are tempered by nihilism and a total lack of filter, and that chaos has always seemed much more genuine and more firmly set than those leading the charge in more overtly experimental fields.
The album doesn’t veer far from GBV’s mode of operation. Short, trembling, lo-fi bites, ranging from acoustic ditties to full electric-treated ragers. Little quirky add-ons permeate these tunes, all 22 of them that barely pass the forty-minute mark. Eerie trilling ambience caps off John Strangle School
, an asymmetrical solo cracks the beautiful Flat Beauty
in half, and Pollard’s voice trails off in odd directions on Roofer’s Union
like a psychedelic mystic. But despite these left-field brushes, Airforce
is an incredibly tight and cohesive collection, one crackling in noisy static, with an ardent pop heart beating underneath.
And that is the point. Though it occasionally implodes in utter noise and a show of its creator’s personality, this is a pop record through and through. The tender ooh-ooh’s that punctuate Get Under It
, the sing-along chorus of Chance to Buy an Island
all reveal Pollard as someone who, in the steady face of his own strangeness, desperately wants to simply make something pretty.