The first and most important question with any new Guided by Voices record is how many of these songs deserve to wind up on GBV playlists or mixtapes. (Because hardcore GBV fans are the type to hang on to cassette players long enough for them to be cool again.) By my count, there are four such songs on Cool Planet. That might not sound like much, considering there are 18 songs on here, but we’re talking about a band that releases a new album every three months.
Of those four instant hits, “Cool Planet” is the best. Its Whovian clatter would make it a live favorite even if it didn’t fade out on a refrain custom-built for audience chant-alongs. “Hat of Flames,” with a stuttering beat and multi-tracked vocal melodies from Robert Pollard, is such a straightforward, traditional pop song that it could’ve existed at any point in the band’s history. “Pan Swimmer” is a minute-long rocker with windmill chords and the record’s prettiest and catchiest chorus. “Table at Fool’s Tooth” starts in the embarrassing faux-tuff turf that make songs like “Zoo Pie” so hard to stomach, but it quickly switches over to a spiral of riffs that chugs along like a standout from the band’s TVT era. None of them would be contenders back at the band’s Alien Lanes peak, at least not with the muffled production and gruffer, less nimble vocals of modern-day GBV, but they’re solid players that’ll always sound welcome at a show or when they pop up on a playlist.
There are a few outright failures, but most of the rest of Cool Planet is pleasantly competent. Most songs have at least one moment or part that stands out, like the bridge that would be the record’s strongest hook if the mid-tempo “Males of Wormwood Mars” didn’t take so long to hit it—or if it didn’t hit it only once. There are hints of glam rock in Tobin Sprout’s “All American Boy,” with its layers of guitars and piano. It sounds like a sloppy Mott the Hoople deep cut, and doesn’t have as clear a precedent in the band’s massive catalog as every other song on here. It’s one of the better songs on Cool Planet, and would be one of the better songs in the band’s career if it weren’t so long and so sluggish.
It shouldn’t be a surprise or a disappointment that yet another Guided by Voices album has arrived that isn’t packed full of hits from tracks one through 18. It’s been 20 years since the non-stop hits of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. What’s surprising is that Pollard and Sprout are still as good at this as they are. Think of how bad the records from the Stones or The Who were in the 1980s, when they were 20 years removed from their peak. For a band that’s essentially a nostalgia act, Cool Planet proves yet again that Guided by Voices can still matter today.