Robert Pollard is not your average prolific songwriter. Today, many artists are lauded for their fecundity if they’re in more than one band or release more than one album in a year. Pollard, though, makes the activity of people like Ryan Adams and Dan Bejar look part-time. Having released his last solo album on January 20th, Pollard, the former leader of 90s legends Guided By Voices, is back just a month later with “The Planets are Blasted,” the second album by his band Boston Spaceships.
Pollard’s habit of writing and releasing songs in such a rapid manner could easily lead one to expect the quality of his output to suffer, as the value of each song is cheapened by the sheer volume that the man spits out. What is so shocking about “The Planets are Blasted,” then, is not just that the songs are almost universally good but that the album feels so essential and climactic. Pollard has proven that, even at 51-years-old, he is more than capable of producing an entirely relevant and enthralling album.
“The Planets are Blasted” is very much a continuation of what Pollard has done before. The GBV formula of simple pop songs driven by powerful riffs is still very much intact. Where Boston Spaceships differs from that band is in the quality of the recording process. Where GBV became associated with the lo-fi movement of the mid-90s, Boston Spaceships records in much higher quality, helping to deliver direct pop-punk in a style more suited to Pollard’s mature songwriting talents.
From the start, “The Planets are Blasted” fulfills this promise of direct rock music. Opener “Canned Food Demons” layers compelling riffs on top of each other, building up to a rousing chorus featuring a brilliantly restrained vocal performance from Pollard. He clearly knows how to use his voice to hook in the listener but never shows it off, deferring to the merits of the songs rather than indulging himself.
Later songs like “Keep Me Down” and “UFO Love Letters” are similarly straight-ahead and thrilling. The dark melodies that hold these songs together are adorned with subtle details like whistling at the end of the latter and a scything solo in the former. “Keep Me Down” also contains some of the most direct lyrics on the record. Attacking a lover, its angry and hostile lines—“I repudiate thee, thou venomous heartbeat”—could come off as immature if the song wasn’t delivered with such style.
Less straight-forward but just as impressive is “Dorothy’s a Planet.” In constant transformation starting from its acoustic intro, the song is almost unrecognizable by the end, but the build always makes sense and is never rushed or jarring. The psychedelic lyrics—“She’s a person fast at play / She’s a planet on display”—only help add to the impression of a songwriter completely in charge of his craft.
Though Pollard is indisputably the leader of the group, Boston Spaceships has clearly become a very tight band. John Moen (The Decemberists) on drums and Chris Slusarenko (Guided by Voices) on bass help build the swirling melodies that sometimes lean towards shoegaze or even prog-rock, but they always revert back to straight ahead hooks and riffs. “Headache Revolution” is a particularly strong example of this. Beginning as a straight-ahead rocker, by the chorus the instruments are vying for supremacy as Pollard sings the track title over and over. Lyrically it offers little but musically it is stunning.
Though the second half of the album struggles to match the superb quality of Side A, the final two tracks finish the album with a brilliant 1-2 punch. “Sight on Sight,” which at four minutes is by far the LP’s longest track, moves through at least five distinct segments, building to a punk-rock closing that tops any of the heavy rocking moments of the earlier tracks. The group saves the biggest surprise for the final track, though. “Heavy Crown” may musically be similar to the rest of the album, but the lyrics reveal Pollard truly opening up to his listeners in a way he rarely has done before. As he sings “I am a high roller / I wear a heavy crown,” we finally get a glimpse of the man himself. He may still be swigging Miller Lite and pumping out simple yet deceptively intelligent guitar rock, but he is also capable of letting us inside his head and even appearing slightly vulnerable.
One can only hope, however, that the anxieties of “Heavy Crown” do not reveal a weakening in Pollard’s resolve to continue producing music of this quality. Somehow finding new ground to plough in a career that should long ago have run out of originality, “The Planets are Blasted” once again proves that Pollard is a prolific, but never profligate, talent.
—Reviewer Chris R. Kingston can be reached at email@example.com.