Guided By Voices – Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Bob Pollard has spent the last decade of his life defying rock ‘n roll: that you eventually run out of songs; that over-the-hill former schoolteachers don’t write rousing rock anthems; that your fan base will dwindle; that the final album must come. Indeed, in Guided By Voice’s 15 or so years in the spotlight, Pollard has taken a bunch of Ohio misfits and turned them into rock ‘n roll’s fountain of youth. He has churned out songs at a dizzying pace, survived on myths of his legendary alcoholism, and taken his bedroom-rock Who fantasies to a wider audience than he could have ever dreamed.

All of this contributes to the sadness that is the final GBV album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed. It’s not like this is the last we’ll hear from Pollard – there are already rumors of projects to clean out his mountain-high piles of demos and lost songs, and he’ll almost certainly continue his Fading Captain series – but Half Smiles still feels like a retreat, a concession, a forfeit.

It doesn’t help that Pollard sounds as world-weary as he ever has. Whereas before his pain was always shrouded in a veil of playful tunefulness or oblique lyrics (see: “Game of Pricks”), Half Smiles takes far more transparent stabs at Pollard’s pain. The dark, humorous title is only half the story, too. On “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking),” he talks of the “the pillars of self esteem,” even as a Who-ish blur of power chords seem to detach him from such mundane, human things.

Sonically, Half Smiles falls in line with the last two GBV releases, Earthquake Glue and Universal Truths and Cycles. Those whose expected Pollard to bow out in a blaze of lo-fi glory will be sorely disappointed, but true fans will recognize just how well the mid-fi approach suits Pollard: never are songs lost amongst the fuzz, as occasionally happened before, and glorious little nuggets like “Gonna Never Have to Die” are still charmingly out of focus.

But just as Half Smiles falls in line with the recording approach of recent releases, it also follows the songwriting approach, which is to say, occasionally transcendent, often average. Tracks like the aforementioned “Rain Cloud” and “Girls of Wild Strawberries” stand up well with even the best of Pollard’s work. But while there’s nothing overtly unlistenable on this album, there are a number of tracks (“Window of My World,” “(S)Mothering and Coaching”) that are average at best.

So while Half Smiles holds par with Pollard’s recent work both compositionally and sonically, it is a proper end for GBV for one reason: it’s the first album on which Pollard sounds old. On “Sing for Your Meat,” a sonic black hole of a song, he comes out with lines like “18 is the legal age to die.” “Gonna Never Have to Die” and “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud” also offer glimpses into Pollard’s mindset. In this respect, he’s betrayed rock ‘n roll’s most important, enduring myth: that youth lasts forever.

On his last recorded song as a member of GBV, “Huffman Prairie Flying Field,” Pollard soars along on a wave of electric chords, spending the last minute of his album singing, rather gleefully, “Far too long,” sounding for the first time in his career like rock ‘n roll, and the hopeful, enduring youth it provides, can’t last forever. It’s too bad, Bob – for a while there, you had all of us convinced otherwise.