Q: When is Robert Pollard not Robert Pollard?
A: When he is Enya.
That’s not to say the Guided By Voices figurehead has ditched his faux-British singing and affinity for Who-like riffage for rehashed classicisms and 500 multi-tracked choruses of his own voice.
But like Enya on a good day, Pollard can write the same song over and over again and make it sound new everytime. On a bad day, though, that same song written over and over again sounds like, well, that same song written over and over again.
Universal Truths and Cycles marks a return to Guided By Voices’ middle period, when the band was far more ambitious than a four-track recorder could capture but not rich enough to pay for a full 24-track studio.
It’s a more stream-of-consciousness sound, where one track full of majesty and pomp follows a sparse track of nothing more than acoustic guitar and voice, which is then followed by a track that’s little more than a sound check caught on tape, followed by a track that alternates between bursts of guitar and jangly arpeggios, followed by, etc., et al, ad infinium …
Critics love this more diverse, more unpredictable sound because it’s (1.) not mainstream; (2.) well-written; (3.) just plain cool.
Scattered is as scattered does, and Universal Truths and Cycles, while being skillfully written, doesn’t possess the clarity of the band’s most recent work. Even though Pollard does his best to give his songs plenty of texture, they eventually bleed into one another uncomfortably.
Sure, that mixed tape feel might attract some folks, but for listeners who like continuity in their album purchases, Universal Truths and Cycles is no place to look.
Thankfully, the album retains the fidelity of Isolated Drills and Do the Collapse, and to its credit, Universal Truths and Cycles comes across as a bit burnished. Gloss fit the band well, but so does a rough edge.
Just so long as Pollard doesn’t attempt to record these larger scales songs on an eight-track the way Under the Bushes, Under the Stars was made.
Still, comparing Guided By Voices to Enya isn’t so much of a knock. Even if the reclusive Irish singer has spent the last 15 years recording the same album six times, it’s a gorgeous album.
So too with Guided By Voices. Pollard may write the same song over and over, but what he’s writing is brilliant, succinct pop. It doesn’t hurt to put Universal Truths and Cycles on the stereo.
Let’s just hope the next time out, a little more editing and a tad more time will find Pollard writing on his good days than his bad.