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By Philip Christman
Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
Let’s throw objectivity out the window, shall we? This is Guided By Voices’ last album, and I for one feel like crying, especially since this record, along with last summer’s even-better Earthquake Glue, demonstrates conclusively that the Bob Pollard-led indie stalwarts have achieved their most cohesive lineup yet.
In the early’90s, they revived arena rock by playing it as if it were an intimate, lo-fi sort of bedroom folk, with a revolving-door lineup earning the group a reputation as Pollard’s backing band; now they’re reviving it by blending the elements of punk, pop, psychedelia, prog and glam that always defined GBV’s sound into a deeply satisfying, outdoor-festival roar. This album and Earthquake Glue -- as well as the best parts of 2001’s Isolation Drills -- sound as physical as the work of early Bowie or The Who.
The main trick up Pollard’s sleeve has always been his ability to give classic-rock styles a sonic, emotional obliquity they didn’t have before. This was partly, you might say, trick photography -- GBV’s most famous mid-’90s albums were not only lo-fi, but fragmentary; the songs on Alien Lanes might not have sounded so original if they’d been recorded normally and allowed a typical four-minute running time, rather than frequently cutting off and segueing. Every song on Half Smiles of the Decomposed stands alone, which means Pollard’s influences become immediately apparent -- the delightful, jangling "Girls of Wild Strawberries" eerily resembles The Who’s "It’s So Sad About Us" crossed with any Byrds song; "Sleep Over Jack" combines dark hard rock with a little Joy Division -- while also revealing how thoroughly the band has digested them. "Gonna Never Have to Die" starts as a sort of punk Iggy stomper, adds some psychedelic coloring, then takes a wonderful instrumental detour that breaks the song wide open. The change of direction on "Window Of My World," wherein a quiet power-ballad shifts into a British Invasion sing along, is expert.
As if to reflect his band’s greater maturity, Pollard’s lyrics are a bit less cryptic than usual, and if they sometimes reveal a sort of banal classic-rock Dionysian mysticism that was just as dumb the first time around (one song is actually called "Sons of Apollo," and begins, for no good reason, with a taped quote from Jerry Falwell), they also achieve an elegiac weight on the aching "A Second Spurt of Growth." In fact, a second spurt of growth is exactly what their last several albums have been. Once upon a time, they helped make lo-fi viable; here their second incarnation headbangs and karate kicks its way into the history books.