Exactly seven years passed between the date of Guided by Voices' last show (New Year’s Eve, 2004) and the January 1st, 2012 release of their reunion album, Let’s Go Eat the Factory. During that time, GBV leader and man of a thousand songs Robert Pollard released approximately 95 albums either on his own or with new bands and past collaborators, the individual details of which I doubt even Pollard recalls. So forgive me if GBVs reunion feels…not exactly anticlimactic—I saw the band perform late last year for the very first time and it was one of the great festival experiences of my life—but certainly inevitable in relation to the rate of Pollard’s continued output. That’s not to take away from the importance of this reformation; it is, after all, a reunion of the band’s “classic line-up,” the one responsible for a string of the best indie-rock albums of the mid-‘90s, from roughly 1992's Propeller to 1996's studio debut Under the Bushes Under the Stars. So just to reiterate: Out of Pollard’s dozens upon dozens of interim releases, I listened to maybe four and, perhaps more tellingly, don’t feel like I missed all that much. Let’s Go Eat the Factory, by contrast, was one of my most anticipated records of the new year.
In light of all this, the new Guided by Voices album arrived and satisfied in the manner I more or less assumed it always would. After all, when you put two of the greatest guitar-pop songwriters of all time in a room together—those two being Pollard and his band’s not-so-secret weapon Tobin Sprout—magic’s bound to materialize one way or another. But if we’re being honest, the songs on here own don’t threaten to shake the GBV canon in any significant way. What this record does feature, however, that much of Pollard’s recent work—and the twilight era of the last GBV incarnation—doesn’t, are the intangibles: The energy, the drunken camaraderie, the shorthand interplay and the charmingly amateurish chops that only these five can muster when forced to co-exist. It may seem incidental, but it’s enough to put over a handful of Factory’s 21 tracks that don’t otherwise leave much of an impression.
The album also nicely retains the collage-like structuring that those mid-‘90s records made such a virtue of: Songs range from 35 seconds to over four minutes and, as always, length doesn’t precipitate quality or disclose a lack of ideas. Highlights are generously if haphazardly spread throughout, the lo-fi touch and scattershot sequencing revealing a spiritual connection to the band’s roots even as theirs feels like the most natural, unpretentious artistic process imaginable. So if it sounds like Pollard could write most of these songs in his sleep, well, he probably did. But you know what? If it took this group of guys at this particular moment in time to flesh out and animate stuff like lead single “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” or the goofily ingratiating “Doughnut for a Snowman” or the purely anthemic “God Loves Us,” then not only was it worth the wait but it also bodes well for future bouts of inspiration (this being GBV, they already have a second reunion record scheduled for March of this year).
Two very different characteristics, however, help Factory stick out from its predecessors, and each toward different qualitative ends. For one thing, this is GBVs most experimental album in quite a while—possibly ever, but most certainly with this line-up. Droning string parts, dissonant breakdowns, and a comparatively patient approach toward integrating these elements into their little kicks-worthy indie-rock mark this as a surprisingly exhausting listen at barely over 41 minutes. Some of it works, most of it doesn’t, but it evidences a band with more on their mind than nostalgia. More importantly, scattered amidst these digressions and Pollard’s typically cheeky British Invasion poses are a handful of Tobin Sprout’s best songs to date. Traditionally a sneakily unassuming foil to Pollard’s more demonstrative antics, Sprout steps out with perhaps the record’s most melodic tracks; “Spiderfighter,” “Who Invented the Sun,” “Waves,” and “The Things That Never Need” are alternately sprawling, tight, complex, and modest, and together they add a dimension that no other incarnation of GBV could ever hope to match.
So if Factory’s ultimately an album more for the devout fans than the curious ones (and to the curious, if you’ve read this far: go buy a copy of Bee Thousand and then burn the rest of your record collection—it won’t be needed), it’s also an encouraging sign that Pollard’s inspiration is still capable of being temporarily bottled and packaged for those who’ve shined on through his deluge of solo and collaborative material. Above all else, you just can’t replicate the energy that these five guys can produce when given a bottle of brown liquor, a 4-track, and a live mic. All their messy tangents and blinding fits of inspiration may have inevitably made it onto Let’s Go Eat the Factory, but in all its inconsistent glory, it’s truer to the spirit of Guided by Voices than anything bearing the name since this line-up’s original dissolution. And by those standards, it’s not only satisfying, but a small scale success. [InRO]