Most divorces are not reversible; maybe that’s why the document that confirms the rupture is called a Decree Absolute. But as we know, a band breakup need not be forever. In fact, the more successful the band, the likelier that a farewell tour will be followed by a reunion show and a new studio album.
Guided by Voices (GBV) never reached the stadium-tour level of renown, but the influential lo-fi rockers built up a wide and devoted following during their two decades of activity. The band broke up in 2004 with the obligatory farewell tour and album, capping a long goodbye with a final New Year’s Eve concert that lasted four hours and was later released on DVD.
In the seven years since, the band’s lead singer and prolific main writer Robert Pollard has put out 13 solo records. You might think that would prove he didn’t need to continue with GBV to stay creative. But Pollard’s work alone was not enormously different from his GBV output and involved some of the same players who had come in and out of the band. Not for him the complete holiday from collective identity taken by, say, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, whose latest solo record, Ukulele Songs, is exactly what it says it is.
So it wasn’t a stretch, creatively, for Pollard to reunite the band, though it’s somewhat surprising that the new GBV consists of the mid-nineties lineup that most fans consider the best GBV (guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell). After playing just one gig together, the reconstituted group announced it was working on two new albums, of which Let’s Go Eat the Factory is the first.
Both the title and the disc recreate the shambling, surrealistic world that seemed so fresh when the band was new, and can still be very engaging. Most of the 21 songs are two minutes or less, as usual, and most show a craftsman’s concern for the basics: good hooks, strong structure, memorable tunes. The paradoxically arresting combination of old-school craft, cryptic lyrics and messy production values comes together best in songs such as The Unsinkable Fats Domino, which isn’t so much a tribute to the king of the Twist as to the English bands that idealized his kind of R&B in the sixties. The persistent water imagery is whimsically literal-minded.
Doughnut for a Snowman finds a loose-strumming arrangement for a tight and resolutely odd song written in the style of a touching ballad. Chocolate Boy addresses its title character with the solemnity of a child greeting an imaginary playmate, as the easy-rolling accompaniment assures us, wrongly, that we’re in a familiar place. Some of Pollard’s best conceits play as fairy tales told in a sticky-floored rock bar.
The ghosts of other bands flit by, notably the Beatles, who haunt the grim Oedipal ditty, Hang Mr. Kite. There’s Imperial Racehorsing, with its Get Back beat and feeling; and the time-travelling Fats Domino song. Old Bones essays the lyrical directness of an old ballad that seems to have swallowed a lump of Auld Lang Syne, but the starry-eyed sound world isn’t far from Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.
GBV has never been fond of much polish, and many of these songs retain the shabby glory of its 4-track origins. Inevitably, some feel like they’ve been made public too soon: Go Rolling Home and The Head are promising demo sketches that should have been worked out further or put back in the drawer. That too, is part of the GBV experience: the raw comes with the cooked, and the half-cooked.
Let's Go Eat the Factory is streaming in its entirety at npr.org.
Let’s Go Eat the Factory
- Guided by Voices
- Guided by Voices Inc.
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