Guided by Voices

Half Smiles of the Decomposed

(Matador; 2004)

By Bryan Rowsell | 19 November 2007

The sticker on the cover of Half Smiles of the Decomposed reads: "THE FINAL ALBUM: The last chapter in the storied career of Robert Pollard's merry men is another idiosyncratic rock masterpiece." The self-proclaimed "kings of indie rock" are hanging up their guitars for good; their frontman and principle songwriter, Robert E. Pollard Jr., has decided to bring about an end to one of the most prolific bands in rock history. And yes, I'm a tad weepy-eyed.

Your humble reviewer got into GbV late in life, right around the release of '99s forgettable-yet-somehow-catchy-anyway major-label debut Do The Collapse. However, it wasn't until the first notes of "Sad If I Lost It" (the brilliant 2nd track of 1997's highly-underrated Mag Earwhig!) eased their way into my auditory canals that I became born again---Robert Pollard became my minister and his every song a sermon. His genius preached to me in ways I honestly never thought any musician could, evidenced by the shrine currently residing on my CD rack: 43 albums and EPs, 3 box sets, 3 DVDs, countless bootlegs and one autographed poster hanging next to said rack. Surprisingly, this pales in comparison to many other Pollardophiles. Having said this, it is almost impossible to be just a casual fan of Mr. Pollard. You either pass him off as an average musician who writes one good song accompanied by three bad ones, or you seek to acquire every crumb that he is wont to drop from his plate of Beatles-inspired pop craftsmanship. Unfortunately for those of you who are just now being introduced to GbV, I'm quite sad to say that Half Smiles of the Decomposed is chock-full of crumbs.

Pollard starts off, as usual, wearing his influences on his sleeve. After the opening notes of "Everybody Thinks I'm A Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)," I very nearly expected to hear Roger Daltrey's wail, rather than Pollard's much more subdued vocals, which has him "Looking for a miracle cure for my sorrow." Pollard tends to bookend albums on solid pop-rock notes, and Decomposed continues with this tradition. Following the brilliant opener, "Sleep Over Jack" is yet another in an endless string of lyrically-cryptic, pseudo-prog rock ditties: "Ragged Enzyme really shows/ Half Smiles of the Decomposed/ I know." Somehow, it wouldn't be a GbV album without at least a few of these, but, surprisingly, Half Smiles of the Decomposed contains very few. The songs on this album lack the laconic nature typically found in much of Pollard's work, yet the fourteen songs contained herein rank Decomposed as one of the leanest GbV offerings in terms of song numbers; at well over 40 minutes, the album contains no song shorter than 2:17.

It is after "Jack" that some of the inspiration for Decomposed becomes clear. "Girls of Wild Strawberries" is one of several odes to Pollard's new girlfriend---a beautiful acoustic-guitar driven ballad, the kind that Bryan Adams only wishes he could write. "Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial" is also a methodical, albeit heavier in its arrangement, tribute to Pollard's new-found love. One of the catchier tunes on the record, it's clear that Pollard isn't completely immune to the mellowing from which most decorated songwriters suffer. To his credit, these syrupy offerings are kept to a minimum, as much of the material on Decomposed is on the level of straightforwardness perhaps only matched by 2001's Isolation Drills.

Many of the Decomposed's songs also borrow heavily from Pollard's most recent solo-recording, Fiction Man (also produced by sixth-GbVer Todd Tobias). The acoustic riffs of "Gonna Never Have to Die" and "Window of My World" wouldn't have seemed remotely out of place on that LP, and the gentle-yet-punchy nature of "(S)Mothering and Coaching" could have easily been recorded during its sessions. Many reviewers have frowned on such offerings, and maybe to some degree they're right; although these songs are indeed catchy, somewhat innovative tunes, it's hard to imagine GbV's final album being full of anything other than rockers. Then again, what's a GbV record without it's chaff?

The second half of the album begins with the rather idiosyncratic "Asia Minor." Not one of Pollard's best offerings, it still had me inexorably humming: "Nothing could be finer, yeah / Than asia minor, yeah," in the Safeway parking lot. "Sons of Apollo" begins with excerpts from what may be a Dubya speech on the "campaign against smut," though don't let that fool you, this is one of the better all-out rockers here. Basically, the remainder of the second half of the album is relatively uninspired, with "Sing for Your Meat," "Asphyxiated Circle," "A Second Spurt of Growth," and "(S)Mothering and Coaching" all being somewhat catchy, Pollard-like mini rock-operas, though none will leave much of an impression once their running time is complete.

Which brings me to the end. "Huffman Prairie Flying Field" is one of the greatest GbV songs ever put to tape. High praise no doubt, but this is no baseless hyperbole, either. Is it because it is indeed the bookend of the group's "storied career?" Is it because it's about the birthplace of aviation and the shrine of the Wright Brothers? Is it because Tobin Sprout plays guitar on the final GbV track ever? Well, yes---but that and much more. I have the distinct feeling that this "Huffman Prairie Flying Field" is a very old song, and one that Pollard was saving for the right time; that time being, as it'd turn out, the end. Even the fade out at the end is somewhat symbolic and has Pollard living up to one of his many nicknames: the Fading Captain.

Although Half Smiles of the Decomposed is certainly not Pollard's best work, it certainly ranks among the best of what I refer to as "Tier 2 GbV." I also believe that many critics have been overly harsh on Pollard since Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996) for many reasons. Not the least of which may be the expunging of Tobin Sprout et al., the seemingly infinite expansion of Pollard's sinusoidal Fading Captain Series and the migration of Pollard's sound from lo-fi to hi-fi and back again (well, more like "mid-fi" if you could call it such).

It would be nice to forget about such trash-can Pollard offerings like Nightwalker (1997), Hazzard Hotrods (2001) and Howling Wolf Orchestra (2001), but as a pure, balls-out rock n' roll record, Half Smiles of the Decomposed is certainly on par with the likes of Isolation Drills and Universal Truths and Cycles (2002), and as such it's a befitting epitaph for a career with many more high kicks than low ones. It's GbV's last call, and they made it a good one.