Album Review: Guided By Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field

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By Josh Hudson / February 26, 2020
Guided By Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field

To call Guided by Voices’ output prolific feels like an understatement.  Since their first album in 1987, the group has officially released over 500 songs on 30 albums, 19 EPs, and through various appearances on soundtracks and compilations. In 2019 alone, the band released three full-length albums and one EP.  Yet this discography only accounts for less than a third of the songwriting output from front man Robert Pollard, the band’s sole consistent member and primary creative force, who has written over 1600 songs. 

Now we have the band’s first release of 2020, Surrender Your Poppy Field.  The 15-song album opens with “Year of the Hard Hitter,” which feels like a pastiche of several ideas Pollard and company managed to deftly weave together into a song that takes the listener to several very different places, all fitting together quite nicely.  It serves as a taster for what the rest of this album is – a compilation of songs that will explore varying musical ideas while managing to fit together rather well.  The primary difference is that the remaining tracks typically lack the compositional diversity of the opener.

Throughout the album, the band commonly ventures into experimental territory, incorporating broader instrumentation and orchestration into many of the tracks.  However, once a song has established its primary musical idea, it rarely ventures beyond that.  Serving as a prime example, “Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” a highlight of the album because of the horns and strings arrangements (at least for a band typically regraded as lo-fi; this album certainly isn’t changing the sonic landscape of modern music) over a chugging, mid-tempo chord progression.  Additionally, “Steely Dodger” sticks to its straightforward, guitar-driven aggressiveness, and “Whoa Nelly” is another track that seems to come out of left field but does not go any further in its sonic exploration then where it starts.  An exception to this is the album closer, “Next Sea Level,” which displays a higher degree of songwriting craft.

At times, the subjects and motivations behind the lyrical content seem ambiguous at best.  For instance, why is a 62-year-old man declaring “cul-de-sac kids have the best parties” and that he will not rat them out on the aptly named “Cul-De-Sac Kids”?* Overall, it seems the important thing on the album is not what Pollard is singing about or why, but simply the fact that he still is after all these years.

When it comes down to it, a band with the sheer volume of output that Pollard demands is most likely going to have some misfires and half-baked ideas.  The album does have some well-crafted and well-executed compositions, but many of the songs feel closer to interludes that could have used some more time gestating in the practice space.  Unfortunately, this prevents some of the ideas from sticking with the listener once the track changes.  One can’t help but wonder what would happen if, instead of releasing multiple albums per year, Pollard slowed his output down to one album every year or two, using this time to cull his ideas and focus on completing 10 to 12 well-crafted songs.  The ideas are there, but the execution is rushed.  The work ethic is admirable, but it is possible that the breakneck pace effects the overall quality of the albums.

With that said, the album is still worth a listen for fans or anyone looking for an entry point into a massive discography.  The band has had truly great moments throughout their career and remain a satisfying live act, and any music fan would do well to appreciate that.

Surrender Your Poppy Field was released on February 20 by the band’s own record label, Guided by Voices, Inc.  Be sure to catch the band when they stop in at the Ottobar in Baltimore, MD on April 3, the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, PA on April 24, or College Street Music Hall in New Haven, CT on April 25.

 
Guided By Voices – Surrender Your Poppy Field

Guided By Voices

Surrender Your Poppy Field

Released: February 20, 2020

Track Listing:

1. Year of the Hard Hitter

2. Volcano

3. Queen Parking Lot

4. Arthur Has Business Elsewhere

5. Cul-De-Sac Kids

6. Cat Beats a Drum

7. Windjammer

8. Steely Dodger

9. Stone Cold Moron

10. Physician

11. Man Called Blunder

12. Woah Nelly

13. Andre The Hawk

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About the author
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Josh Hudson

Josh has been following music in the DMV area ever since he started to call it home a decade ago. When not seeing or writing about music, he is often making it with different groups of musicians around town.