Robert Pollard has a work ethic these days that makes even Mark E. Smith look lazy by comparison. While Guided By Voices albums came along at a pretty steady pace in their heyday, since the ‘classic’ lineup reformed they’ve managed to record an unfathomable six albums in just over two years, not to mention the four solo albums Pollard has put out during that time, plus two with Circus Devils. While none of us can know for certain whether or not he has formed some kind of pact with the devil recently, surely by his second album of 2014 he must be starting to run low on ideas?
Well, yes and no. While it would be untrue to say that Cool Planet (named for the Polar Vortex hitting Ohio at the time of its creation) is GBV at the peak of their powers, it’s still a relatively solid work. Anyone who has heard any of the recent albums will know more or less exactly what to expect by now – while the first reunion album Let’s Go Eat The Factory aimed mainly towards recreating the home recorded charm of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, they’ve since settled into the same kind of mid-fi aesthetic as the Under The Bushes Under The Stars era, and it’s no different here, even with the recent upheaval within the group (late-period GBV drummer Kevin March appears here for the first time since 2004’s Half Smiles Of The Decomposed, following the highly publicised exit of Kevin Fennell last year). ‘Authoritarian Zoo’ is yet another storming opener, well worthy of a place on any career-spanning GBV playlist, while ‘Bad Love Is Easy To Do’ is a typically infectious first single and ‘Hat Of Flames’ sees Pollard invoking more of his wonderfully surreal imagery. Tobin Sprout’s contributions are pleasing as always this time round, but not among his strongest, aside from the gorgeous ‘Ticket To Hide’ tucked away near the album’s end, just before the title track finishes the album in fine style, culminating with two Pollards vying for our attention at once, one chanting the mantra “Heroes do matter/Insects do scatter” until it starts to sound like an odd kind of rallying cry.
This is a strong enough album to satisfy any GBV cravings you might have, but it never quite reaches the heights of the first two reunion albums Let’s Go Eat The Factory or Class Clown Spots A UFO, let alone their 1990s output, and satisfying as it may be, it doesn’t always succeed at being particularly memorable or exciting, although its 18 tracks whizz by in 37 minutes which means it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s true that if Pollard relaxed his ‘record everything’ mantra and settled for making one album every 12 months instead, pooling all his songs together and choosing only the best to record, he could be putting out some very fine albums right now, rather than spreading the highlights over several albums that are somewhat diluted by lack of quality control. Then again, in an age where bands reuniting for nostalgia tours has become something of a cliché, and yet the idea of recording new material is often considered sacrilegious (see the recent excessive hand-wringing over Pixies’ decision to finally record a new album a decade into their reunion), there’s something rather admirable about the audacity of reforming your band and flooding the shops with an endless supply of new albums as if you’ve never been away, plus trying to keep up with Pollard has become half the fun. While one of the more measured criticisms of the new Pixies material has been that while the Boston weirdos have managed to produce a fairly decent set of radio-ready alt-rock tunes, they’ve lost their sense of weirdness, it’s refreshing that GBV remain as wonderfully weird as ever.
The main thing to take away from Cool Planet is the realisation that Guided By Voices could now essentially last forever, continuing to mine more and more two minute songs out of the same handful of chords, long outliving us all. If the world ever experiences nuclear fallout, all that will remain will be the cockroaches, and Robert Pollard sitting in his basement in Dayton, continuing to record new material on a four track. And probably Mark E. Smith, arguing with a wall somewhere in Prestwich.