A series of entertaining yet disjointed musical vignettes
At this point in time, it wouldn’t be all that outlandish to refer to Dayton’s own Guided by Voices as indie rock legends. The group has been active for nearly 30 years total at this point, and at about 30 full-length studio releases, the band certainly has the portfolio to show for all those years. Their affinity for vignette-like songs and lo-fi aesthetic choices has been maybe the most consistent part of their artistry across this three-decade-long venture. Unfortunately, on the newest release Surrender Your Poppy Field, these stylistic choices become unreliable crutches, and merely a source of familiarity for fans of the band, not well-designed portraits of musical expertise.
Music, like film and TV, can often be described as a series of “moments.” In music, these “moments” could be considered anything from a particularly affecting lyric, a bridge, or even the final and most energetic chorus. There’s no shortage of “moments” on Surrender Your Poppy Field. There’s also no shortage of entertaining vignettes. However, these moments are generally just that; moments. Aside from a select few songs, the most exciting parts of Guided By Voices’ work on this project are very brief, and often unconnected to any structural element of their respective songs.
They’re limited to the way Robert Pollard’s voice sounds on one particular line, or the way guitarist Doug Gillard lands a certain riff. Because most of these tracks lack a typical song structure and come off as somewhat stream-of-consciousness, there’s little compulsion to return to these moments, and they’re incredibly fleeting. There’s a chance that many of these songs might have felt much more complete and satisfying if they were less adventurous structurally. The unfortunate part of making the decision to adopt a more fluid style of songwriting is that if the instrumentation or sound isn’t otherwise memorable, it all feels like a blur. As a listener, this structural adventurousness quickly creates that sense of auditory fatigue. Coincidentally, it’s the first five tracks of this album that sticks with listeners the most. These five, especially “Volcano” and “Cul-De-Sac Kids,” are great. After that point, it all becomes a frustrating indie rock blur.
Basically every song has at least one endearing “moment” that generates some degrees of impact, and by the end of it, the listener is looking for anything to which they can attach album-like meaning or cohesion. Most of these songs just don’t make a strong impression beyond their few special “moments”.
It’s easy to want to love this project because there were so many bits of cool ideas packed into these 39 minutes, but there just isn’t a sense of cohesion to make the vast majority of these two to three-minute musical oddities worthy of one’s attention, and unfortunately, that’s what could have made this album much less frustrating.