[No. 03 in a Series]
A circus barker’s come-on. A brassy fanfare. The curtain rises, and the show begins with “5° on the Inside,” a thumping, rubber-jointed rocker that sounds utterly joyous, at least until the lyrics hit you.
The sweet spot bled out
to stain your life.
August by Cake is the most approachable Guided by Voices record since 2001’s Isolation Drills, the most relaxed since 1995’s Alien Lanes, and the most topical ever. Robert Pollard once divided humanity into two camps: Sad Clowns and Happy Motherfuckers. He was, he confessed, in the former category, but he envied those in the latter. August by Cake is a Happy Motherfucker record, but it’s shot through with a Sad Clown sensibility.
The release is being promoted as Pollard’s 100th studio record, a claim I’m not inclined to fact-check, but what really sets it apart is that it’s GBV’s first double album. Its 32 songs are parceled out evenly across the two disks, eight a side, and all that sonic real estate gives the album an unhurried quality, and an expansiveness, that’s unusual in the GBV catalog. The extended format also gives Pollard an excuse to share songwriting and singing duties with the four other current members of the band — drummer Kevin March, bassist Mark Shue, and guitar players Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. Each of them contributes two songs, with Shue also supplying a magnificently grimy instrumental called “Chew the Sand.” While Pollard’s erstwhile collaborator Tobin Sprout was always allowed a few songs on Guided by Voices albums when he was a member, August by Cake is by far the most democratic of the band’s records.
What’s remarkable, particularly given that Pollard reportedly gave his bandmates only a day or two to come up with their tracks, is how uniformly good all their songs are. They include some of the album’s standouts, notably March’s jingle-jangle earworm “Overloaded” and Shue’s thunderous “Sudden Fiction.” Even more surprising, they also include the two songs that sound the most like classic GBV numbers. Bare’s offhand “High Five Hall of Famers,” a tribute to the current lineup, would have fit right in on King Shit and the Golden Boys, and March’s “Sentimental Wars” has the brittle sweetness of a Sprout tune.
Still, it’s Pollard’s band and Pollard’s record. His 23 songs are varied and surprising, packing subtle chord and melody changes into their two-minute spans. If you’re looking for punky thrills like “Motor Away” or “Planet Score,” you’re not going to find them on this record. Pollard’s work here is more in a post-punk vein, catchy but aloof, open yet wary. Some of the best of his songs are the slow-burners, the ones that would be anthemic if they weren’t so undeceived. There’s the poised “What Begins on New Year’s Day,” the melancholic “Warm Up to Religion,” the tender “Amusement Park Is Over,” and, best of all, the stark, unsettling “We Liken the Sun.”
Arriving in the middle of the first side, “We Liken the Sun” takes a place among Pollard’s most striking compositions. In typically abstract-expressionist fashion, Pollard offers a meditation on metaphor against a backdrop of sullen, viperish guitars. He begins by portraying the sun as a symbol of life and inspiration — “the wheel of hands, a lasting thing” — but halfway through, the music deepens, enters a harsher climate, and the metaphor darkens. The song ends with an eerily apocalyptic refrain, the life-giving force transformed into a dealer of death:
Burn your face
with your gun,
light your head,
liken the sun.
Pollard, as an artist, is a formalist, and that’s true not only of his songs but of his albums. He takes a dramatist’s interest in the sequencing and segueing of tracks, and in the way the two sides of a vinyl record constitute different acts and can express different moods. That’s exactly what makes a double album such a tricky undertaking. Not only do you have to hold the listener’s interest for an unusually long time, but you have to work through four acts instead of just two. For most bands that have had the temerity to attempt one, the double album has represented a triumph of ambition over talent.
Wisely, Pollard keeps things simple. He steers clear of pretentiousness, keeps the songs in the foreground. (The model would seem to be the Beatles’ White Album, a record Pollard worships.) But there is a carefully worked out architecture to August by Cake, and it gives the album a heft and coherency that it wouldn’t have if it were just a big collection of songs.
The first side begins as something of an overture, giving a sense of the album’s many styles and themes. Then, starting with “Liken the Sun,” it turns ominous. One of the crucial tracks on any double album is the last song of the first side — it’s where the Stones put “Tumbling Dice” on Exile on Main Street — and Pollard picks for that spot the coldest, most abrasive song on the album: “Packing the Dead Zone.” It seems a strange choice at first, but the song brings to the surface an undercurrent of foreboding that runs throughout August by Cake. The album arrives in a world that gives every appearance of coming apart at its poorly sewn seams, and Pollard produces a bill of indictment that captures the absurdity of the times:
Music in boxes,
a room full of dolls,
and ozone sneakers:
packing the dead zone.
The mood brightens on Side B, where the band indulges its garage-rock and glam-rock leanings. With nods to forerunners ranging from the Kinks to T Rex to Wire, not to mention 1990s-era GBV, the side is where this new version of Guided by Voices establishes its own identity, as a band able to work within a rich tradition without feeling constrained by it. It’s the most self-contained and confident of the sides, and it ends giddily, with the group charging through three of the album’s most upbeat, straightforward rock songs.
The third side is a different beast. It begins with the same riff that closes the second, but it heads in a contrary direction, inspired by Pollard’s fascination with prog and psychedelia. The most experimental, and the darkest, of the sides, it feels at times like a playlist for a road trip through dystopia. We’re back in the dead zone. In addition to Shue’s “Chew the Sand,” there’s Pollard’s creepy sci-fi mini-opera “Substitute 11,” Gillard’s piercing Silicon Valley kiss-off “Deflect/Project” (“evil things have come to light”), and Bare’s surreal, despairing “Upon the Circus Bus”:
And as we abandon all those who defended us
we all know what is waiting for us
on the circus bus, upon the circus bus.
Diehard fans will appreciate the jarring “amp drop” that Bare slips in near the close of the song — a winking tribute to a GBV tradition and a fitting exclamation point for Side C.
The final side strikes me as the least cohesive of the four — less a summing up than a sweeping up. But maybe that’s by design: a set of tunes to usher the crowd out of the tent and into the night. The album slows with a couple of ramshackle Pollard-alone-with-his-guitar songs (“Whole Tomatoes,” “Golden Doors”), but then closes with its most propulsive, exuberant number, “Escape to Phoenix.”
new hot topics,
the escape scene.
Pollard is the circus barker again, making a sprint for the town line, propelled by hand claps and chugging guitars. The tune feels like the missing link between the Velvet Underground and the Bay City Rollers. I’m not sure it was a link that needed to be discovered, but it does end this fun and satisfying album with a rush.
the people demand an answer.
They’re not going to get one, but, for the moment anyway, the Happy Motherfuckers are outrunning the Sad Clowns.
Image: Detail from “All the Way to Happy” by Robert Pollard.