When Guided By Voices announced their break-up, I had a short moment of panic. What was I going to do without Robert Pollard’s nearly nonsensical lyrics and pop melodies? Then I remembered: this is the Robert Pollard we’re talking about here. The man is arguably the most prolific man in rock music. His fiercest competition is Ryan Adams and Pollard has yet to release a jokey rap album on the internet. So after my brief moment of panic, I relaxed and realized that there was no way that more Pollard solo albums wouldn’t see the light of day.
Come 2006, Pollard fans were blessed with two albums: From A Compound Eye and Normal Happiness. While From A Compound Eye was a more dense and reflective affair, Normal Happiness is a breezier concoction. Despite the stylistic differences between the two albums, they both show Pollard’s increasing growth as a songwriter and ability to craft albums that are increasingly more thematically coherent. In a year where Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth have released stellar albums, Pollard is saying, “don’t count out the so-called ‘elder statesmen.'”
While listening to Normal Happiness, I noticed that the music’s influences seem to come more out of Pollard’s own back catalogue than from the outside. Take “Towers and Landslides,” nestled comfortably in the middle of the album, the opening chords recall the opening of “Tractor Rape Chain” from Bee Thousand. “Towers and Landslides” is a raucous track that is brassy and bold as Pollard sings, “I go pushing, thrashing, waging one man war.” It’s a stark contrast to the following track, “I Feel Gone Again,” a Beatlesque acoustic ballad. It’s a lovely song that gains momentum towards the middle, gaining steam yet ends with a quiet and tender: “Take me home, I feel gone.” In “I Feel Gone Again,” Pollard’s voice sounds defiant, yet at the same time, a little defeated, and though the lyrics are still obtuse there’s real emotional weight to the song.
Normal Happiness has a stellar opener with “Accidental Texas Who.” Robert Pollard, ever the Who fan, crafts a song that is practically arena-ready. There’s a certain point in which you can imagine Pollard affecting a Robert Daltry-like stance and twirling a microphone. Given Pollard’s lo-fi aesthetic and quick turnaround for albums, it seems that an arena rock version of “Accidental Texas Who” will be left for live versions. One of the best songs on the album is “Supernatural Car Lover.” Recalling the heydays of ’90s Alterna-rock, Pollard sings joyfully, yet the lyrics speak of waiting and hoping for “normal happiness”, or being satisfied with a normal existence, something that Pollard may be wrestling with.
Musically, Normal Happiness combines the bombast of The Who and the sun-soaked easiness of California ’60s pop while still preserving Pollard’s rough and tumble style. The guitars are sometimes a little tough and aggressive (as in “Serious Bird Woman (You Turn Me On)”) but Pollard also shows a great variety in styles. Compare the delicate strums on “Join the Eagles” to the bursts of tough, gnarled guitars in “Pegasus Glue Factory”; it further cements Pollard’s talent as a guitarist. In addition to the standard guitars and drums, the songs are also fleshed out by unexpected blips from synthesizers, keyboards, toy pianos, and what sounds like a blurt from a tuba at the end of “Join the Eagles.”
After all these years of recording, what struck me most about listening to Normal Happiness is that this is the sound of a man who loves to make music. Producer Todd Thomas also proves to be key player in Pollard’s post-GBV work. Thomas lends a steady hand in production and extracts the best, most energetic takes to make a tight album full of pop gems. Normal Happiness revels in most of Pollard’s eccentricities while not overindulging in them and still holding to strong songcraft. It makes for one of Pollard’s best non-GBV albums to date.