Guided by Voices
Let's Go Eat the Factory
(Guided by Voices Inc.; 2012)
By Brent Ables | 10 January 2012
Guided by Voices have a thing for dramatic gestures. Seven years ago, the band ostensibly wrapped up their two-decade run with a truly epic New Year’s Eve farewell concert in Chicago. They ran through some 65 songs that night, and as you can see in the fittingly titled documentary The Electrifying Conclusion!, Robert Pollard took the occasion to bust out every hackneyed trick in the rock frontman handbook: microphone swinging, duck walking, mic-stand kung fu, and so, so much beer. It might have been a fittingly energetic end to an incredible career; fortunately for us, it wasn’t. Seven years to the day after they said goodbye, while we were still nursing our New Year’s hangovers, the Faded Captain and his golden boys drunkenly barged back into our lives with Let’s Go Eat the Factory, this lovable shamble of a rock record.
The release date is somehow fitting. At a time of the year when people are eager to break out of old patterns and habits in place of the new and improved, we get a new record from an old band whose particular brilliance has always been in a certain kind of alchemical transformation—namely, their capacity to channel the history of pop-rock into a jaggedly appealing collage of muscular riffs, absurdist quips, and indelible hooks. It’s always felt too reductive to call these guys an indie rock band: although their signature lo-fi scuzz and patchwork approach to songwriting solidly guarantees their exclusion from the popular rock market (Pollard’s late-career gestures at crossover appeal notwithstanding), the songs themselves have as much in common with the British Invasion and prog-rock as Britpop and Pavement. Not just indie rock for the faithful, GBV could have been any-rock for the masses. That the masses will almost certainly never realize this is very much their loss.
Let’s Go Eat the Factory is certainly going to do nothing to alter GBV’s fanbase one way or the other: there are no crossover singles here, but neither is there anything that is going to scare away longtime listeners. (Although “The Things That Never Need,” with its incoherent rambling and general lack-of-songness, makes a pretty good go at it.) No, this is very much an album for the fans. Much has been made of the fact that it was written and recorded by the most beloved of the band’s many incarnations—namely, the mid-‘90s lineup that recorded Bee Thousand (1994) and Alien Lanes (1995)—but it’s surprising how palpable a difference that really makes. There is very little indication on this album that Pollard was ever involved with the (unjustly) maligned Do the Collapse (1999) or anything afterwards. From the production quality to the Ritalin-deprived arrangements to Pollard’s voice, most everything here sounds like a natural continuation of the work released during what is rightly regarded as the band’s creative zenith.
Which is to say, again, that the album is a fucking mess—just as every great Guided by Voices record has been. Some songs come barreling out of the gate, while some never find their racing legs; ballads turn into rockers, and rockers into ballads; there are gifts given to imaginary characters (“Doughnut for a Snowman”), self-aggrandizing slogans repeated ad nauseum (“We are living proof that God loves us!”), and lots of nonsensical dadaist poetry sung with absolute conviction by the ever-elusive Pollard. And there are the few requisite instances—“The Big Hat and Toy Show,” “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)”—where the song titles are more entertaining than the actual songs.
But scattered among the detours and dead-ends are those nuggets of ineffable pop genius that are like crack for longtime Pollard devotees. It’s hard to think of another band as focused on the moment as Guided by Voices. We let them get away with 20-second joke songs and even the occasional throwaway album because we know that it isn’t the long-form composition at which these guys excel, but the individual riff, or couplet, or killer chorus. So if Tobin Sprout wants to bury the prettiest moment of the album at the end of “Spiderfighter,” then more power to him; if Pollard couldn’t think of, like, more than one line for “God Loves Us,” then who cares? It’s still a great song. If you’re looking for focus and consistency, you’re obviously looking in the wrong place.
And speaking of Sprout, the guy kills it on this album. Pollard is mostly in fine shape throughout, producing just a few duds amongst a handful of great tunes, but almost without exception the best moments on Let’s Go Eat the Factory are found in Sprout’s songs. In “Waves,” he gives us the most straightforwardly enjoyable track on the entire album; with “Old Bones,” which is something like an acid-induced cover of “Auld Lang Syne” played backwards at three-quarters speed, he gives us the most fascinating. Sprout was always Pollard’s most fruitful creative partner, but never before has he proven himself to be able to stand toe to toe with one of the genre’s very best. Only time will tell if he has more of these gems waiting to be released to the world, but I’m willing to put in the effort to find out. If this album is any indication, it’ll be more than worth it—and who knows, Pollard might even start to get competitive, and really step his game back up. Wouldn’t that be something.