Robert Pollard has been a particularly unrelenting creative force since reuniting the classic Guided By Voices lineup in 2010. The man must think in songs. He writes way more than he can release and releases as many as he can. In the past two years, Pollard’s dropped four GBV albums and three solo records, with Honey Locust Honky Tonk as the latest installment in his apparently infinite discography. That equates to over 120 songs in less than 24 months — par for the guy who’s known to write whole EPs while taking a morning shit.
For the sake of dissent, one might argue that Pollard’s settled into a formula, that his records have become formless collages of dadaist poetry, pop hooks, rock ‘n’ roll tropes, and lo-fi schlock, all smashed together with irreverence and a lack of self-editing. But that’s Pollard’s process, and with it comes his charm. What’s a Pollard release without some cheese and improvisation? These idiosyncratic moments say as much about him as they do his songwriting. On opener “He Requested Things”, when Pollard sings, “A boy arrived in the world today/ He requested things,” the lyric ostensibly could come from the first-person perspective, since he’s a father himself. And the eerie “Strange Pretty Day” is an intimate ballad with just Pollard, a Portastudio, and the patters of a piano. His postured British accent comes through thick on this track and most of the record.
There’s some filler, but in contrast to the recent GBV albums and Pollard’s typical approach, Honey Locust Honky Tonk sounds polished, with minimal dissonance and economical ditties. The melodies worm their way into your short term memory, popping into your head hours after listening. The chorus in “Who Buries the Undertaker” is infectious (it’d work well on Isolation Drills), as is lead single “I Killed a Man Who Looks Like You”, Pollard’s jangly take on outlaw country that cuts with fatalistic couplets: “Killed a man who looks like you/ I don’t understand the things a man won’t do.”
Per the usual, Pollard’s songs hinge on their melodies, and he can’t always hit the ones he writes for himself (no doubt a side effect of an aging voice). The straight prog rocker “Circus Green Machine” falls flat when the out-of-key Daltrey impressions kick in; “Suit Minus the Middle” is fun but ends anti-climactically after a mere 60 seconds.
Like his previous solo records, Honky Tonk does include some duds, but the majority of these 17 tracks are keepers. It’s definitely not a Guided By Voices album, though it shouldn’t be put against those standards. Pollard writes in a more singer-songwriter vein here, leaning toward ponderous, metaphoric anecdotes rather than the anything-goes unpredictability of GBV. While this approach might not draw in many new listeners, Honey Locust Honky Tonk’s sincerity and tact will certainly be appreciated by his established legion of diehard listeners.
Essential Tracks: “Who Buries the Undertaker”, “I Killed a Man Who Looks Like You”