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By John Wenzel
Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
The final album necessarily invites speculation. Will the band's reputation develop or diminish? Will the music sound as relevant in 30 years as it does today? What the fuck were they smoking?
Indie-rock cult legends Guided By Voices have always thrived on their self-perpetuating mythology, so it's almost beside the point to wonder about legacy. Their legacy exists in the present tense, and it was deliberately created by Robert Pollard. He spent the first 10 years of GBV pretending to be a rock star. When they broke in 1993, he already had all the moves and attitude. The way we see Pollard has more to do with his view of himself than it does with any objective reality. In that way, it's a safe bet GBV's last album will be remembered the way Pollard wants: as a triumphant bookend to the most prolific, willfully obscure (as of late, anyway) band in rock history. Fortunately, its first-rate songs happen to justify that reading.
Opening with the crunchy strut of "Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)," the album tears through six tracks of unbroken pop perfection. The cross-eyed "Sleep Over Jack" recalls guitarist Doug Gillard's solo work, but the loping drum machine and dark sound collages are all Todd Tobias. "Girls of Wild Strawberries" is absolutely gorgeous, dripping with melodic brilliance and featuring some of the best singing of Pollard's career. "Gonna Never Have to Die" is another barn-burner, all thumping percussion and long-haired Allman soloing. "Window of My World" morphs from a precious ballad to electrified '60s swagger, a weird mix of Paul McCartney and the "Laugh In" house band. Managing to sound both triumphant and bittersweet, "The Closets of Henry" trots out all of Pollard's best attributes: lock-tight wordplay, soaring melodies and impeccable pace.
But after that impressive chug, the album loses steam. "Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Museum" isn't bad, it's just not great. Drawn-out and repetitive, it puts the brakes on the roiling momentum of the first half. "Asia Minor" picks it up a bit, full of jaunty, piano-laced lines and Pollard's best fake British accent. "Sons of Apollo" employs a militaristic drum cadence and bizarre sound bite before settling on mediocre, strained vocals. The somber, pretty "A Second Spurt of Growth" is another lyrically self-referential track on par with Isolation Drills' (2001, TVT) excellent "Sister I Need Wine."
The all-important closer, "Huffman Prairie Flying Field," is both anthemic and sober, dripping with Pollard's hopes and fears for the future. The lyrics - which speak of starting over and letting out the demons from a crowded brain - culminate in the repeated phrase "For far too long," which Tobin Sprout solos over during the fadeout. It's not quite a bang, but it's not a whimper either. Pollard knows well that Guided By Voices' final album has a lot to live up to. Though he sounds a little more tired and grown up than he did 10 years ago, he's still got a childlike love of melody. And you can thank the Voices for that.