Let’s throw objectivity out the window, shall we? This is Guided By Voices’ last album, and I for one feel like crying—especially since this record, along with last summer’s even-better Earthquake Glue, demonstrates conclusively that the Bob Pollard-led indie stalwarts have achieved their most cohesive lineup yet. In the early ’90s, they revived arena rock by playing it as if it were an intimate, lo-fi sort of bedroom folk, with a revolving-door lineup earning the group a reputation as Pollard’s backing band; now they’re reviving it by blending the elements of punk, pop, psychedelia, prog and glam that always defined GBV’s sound into a deeply satisfying, outdoor-festival roar. This album and Earthquake Glue—as well as the best parts of 2001’s Isolation Drills—sound as physical as the work of early Bowie or The Who.
The main trick up Pollard’s sleeve has always been his ability to give classic-rock styles a sonic, emotional obliquity they didn’t have before. This was partly, you might say, trick photography—GBV’s most famous mid-’90s albums were not only lo-fi, but fragmentary; the songs on Alien Lanes might not have sounded so original if they’d been recorded normally and allowed a typical four-minute running time, rather than frequently cutting off and segueing. Every song on Half Smiles of the Decomposed stands alone, which means Pollard’s influences become immediately apparent—the delightful, jangling “Girls of Wild Strawberries” eerily resembles The Who’s “It’s So Sad About Us” crossed with any Byrds song; “Sleep Over Jack” combines dark hard rock with a little Joy Division—while also revealing how thoroughly the band has digested them. “Gonna Never Have to Die” starts as a sort of punk/Iggy stomper, adds some psychedelic coloring, then takes a wonderful instrumental detour that breaks the song wide open. The change of direction on “Window Of My World,” wherein a quiet power-ballad shifts into a British Invasion singalong, is expert.
As if to reflect his band’s greater maturity, Pollard’s lyrics are a bit less cryptic than usual, and if they sometimes reveal a sort of banal classic-rock Dionysian mysticism that was just as dumb the first time around (one song is actually called “Sons of Apollo,” and begins, for no good reason, with a taped quote from Jerry Falwell), they also achieve an elegiac weight on the aching “A Second Spurt of Growth.” In fact, a second spurt of growth is exactly what their last several albums have been. Once upon a time, they helped make lo-fi viable; here their second incarnation headbangs and karate-kicks its way into the history books.