Guided By Voices has always basically been known as Bob Pollard and a bunch of guys with day jobs. He was the driving force behind the band in any of its iterations. Whether it was back in the ’80s when they were still recording out of a garage or in the ’90s when they sounded like they were recording out of a garage, Pollard’s presence has stayed the same.
Aside from Pollard’s constancy, the structure of the band has never been consistent: The number of members present and prior is 21. The morphology of the band became so convoluted that there’s an official timeline depicting the change in formation on their Wikipedia. In all honesty, the only asset that really propelled Guided By Voices into becoming a well-recognized member of the indie rock scene was Pollard. His esoteric lyricism and musical quirks were by far the band’s greatest strength. This was his band. That’s why it’s so surprising that he seems to be the one dragging the band down on their latest release, Surrender Your Poppy Field.
This is not to say the instrumentation is anything particularly mind blowing or radical. If anything, the sound is a bit dated, drawing comparisons to Olivia Tremor Control or Semisonic. But even their critically acclaimed releases from the ’90s sounded dated. They were purposely going for a lofi approach, which, in all honesty, sounded better on Ween’s The Pod or anything by Beat Happening. The music on Surrender Your Poppy Field simply gets the job done with the occasional standout track. A few notable tracks include “Arthur Has Business Elsewhere” and “Steely Dodger,” the latter of which sounds like The Books tried to make standard rock music. This is an improvement from their previous post-reformation records that inexplicably tried to hold on to their lofi endeavors from decades earlier.
The biggest problem with this album is that Bob doesn’t have anything to say. This was never the case beforehand, as his sharp wit was the biggest attraction to any Guided By Voices record. At best, he’s able to string together a few clever bars on the record. At worst … oh God. At worst, there’s “Cul-de-Sac Kids.” Nothing about this song suggests a right to exist. How does a 62-year-old man sing “Cul-de-sac kids have the best parties” and “Boy, those sac kids throw good parties” with any sincerity? The answer: He doesn’t. It has all of the vocal absurdity of Frank Zappa’s “Catholic Girls” with just about none of the irony. Mix this with the worst instrumentation on the album and you get a real mess of a milkshake. This is one of those songs that completely halts any momentum for at least the next few songs. Unfortunately, the album doesn’t provide anything to bring it back from such a low.
It’s a shame that one song functions as a grenade, wrecking the enjoyment of an album. Surrender Your Poppy Field had the potential to be a fairly decent record, at least relative to their more recent work. Instead, we’re given a confirmation that Guided By Voices should stop putting out records. At the very least they need to take more time crafting better sets of songs. When you’re putting out three records in one year, it suggests that you don’t understand the concept of b-sides. One can hope they’re only putting out two albums in 2020.