On Robert Pollard: “Chicken Blows”

[No. 04 in a Series]

Take one of those short Beatles songs from the medley that closes Abbey Road, turn it inside out, fill it with nitrous oxide, and let a kindergarten class use it as a ball during recess. That’s “Chicken Blows.” A seeming throwaway that arrives near the end of the nearly endless Alien Lanes, the song reveals itself as a miniature pop masterpiece only after many listens: the exquisitely frayed melody, the trembling vocal, the aching background harmonies, all washing across the tidal pull of a hazy, hypnotic guitar line. Everything feels exhausted, out of focus, dreamlike. “Chicken Blows” is the last song you hear before you fall asleep after a night that’s gone on much too long.

Like so many Guided by Voices songs, “Chicken Blows” has a warped backstory. It was originally released in 1994, a year before Alien Lanes came out, as a track on an exceedingly obscure compilation EP called The Polite Cream Tea Corps, which was included in an issue of Ptolemaic Terrascope, an occasional British psychedelic-music magazine. But the song seems to have been written and recorded much earlier than that, perhaps even in the 1980s. It was slated to be on the aborted 1991 Guided by Voices album Back to Saturn X, which Robert Pollard “shitcanned” just as it was going into production. It was then held in suspended animation for a few years, as three seminal GBV records appeared (1992’s Propeller, 1993’s Vampire on Titus, and 1994’s Bee Thousand), before Pollard decided the time was right to release it.

What’s remarkable about “Chicken Blows” is that it sounds much more contemporary today than it did when it came out more than twenty years ago. Sonically, it anticipates the entropic, Auto-Tune experiments of Bon Iver, Kanye West, and others. It’s fitting that Frank Ocean included the number on one of his Beats I playlists earlier this year. Sometimes seeds spend a lot of time underground before they sprout.

“Chicken blows”? The lyrics are funny, but as usual they’re hiding something sad.

I’m not here to drink all the beer
in the fridge,
in the room,
in the house,
in the place
that we both so love.

“The intellect of man is forced to choose,” wrote W. B. Yeats, “perfection of the life, or of the work.” In the singleminded pursuit of his art, Pollard has had to live something of a broken life, at least when it comes to playing the domestic roles of son, husband, and father — those tireless consumers of poultry meals — and it’s this tension that gives so much of his work its heartbreaking quality. “Chicken Blows” is, among other things, a confession and an apology.

Can you sink
to the depths?
I don’t know,
I don’t even care,
and our lives
slip away.
In the end
we will probably reach
all the way
to the walls
over there.
Have you flown?

The walls of the home are the bonds of love, and it’s the sound of them slowly collapsing that gives “Chicken Blows” its poignancy.

Image: Detail of “His Beautiful Women Crying” by Robert Pollard.

One thought on “On Robert Pollard: “Chicken Blows”

  1. Thuan Pham

    “The intellect of man is forced to choose,” wrote W. B. Yeats, “perfection of the life, or of the work.” In the singleminded pursuit of his art, Pollard has had to live something of a broken life, at least when it comes to playing the domestic roles of son, husband, father, etc., and it’s this tension that gives so much of his work its heartbreaking quality. “Chicken Blows” is, among other things, a confession and an apology.

    But in the end it is a sacrifice he is happily willing to make.

    Our courage is only a taste,
    and I’ll get paid
    if you’ll get laid.
    It’s our parade.

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