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Robert Pollard and His Soft Rock Renegades, Choreographed Man of War (The Fading Captain Series)

reviewed by Dave heaton

Loneliness, alienation and despair are the at the forefront of Choreographed Man of War, the new album from Guided by Voices mainman Robert Pollard and his Soft Rock Renegades (former GBV members Greg Demos and Jim Macpherson. It feels like a companion to GBV's recent album Isolation Drills, which used gorgeously huge arena rock to convey feelings of confusion and isolation. Choreographed Man of War is sort of like Isolation Drills' more world-weary sibling. This album's equally about isolation, but it's much darker. If Isolation Drills depicted a man feelings at odds with the world, Choreographed Man of War is that same man pushed totally to the edge.

Though this album has a more "lo-fi" recording quality than the slickness of GBV's last few albums, musically it's quite similar to Isolation Drills, just pushed further in every direction. Again there's regimented guitar breaks and time changes, but everything's a bit hazier. There's that hard rock edge that GBV's been gaining, but it's even heavier. The first track, "I Drive a Tank," is the perfect example; it's a rock anthem, but not anywhere near radio friendly, and the somewhat surreal lyrics also reflect extreme sadness: " Never go to this awful town/I get it on and it gets me down/I never know when you'll come around/that's why I drive a tank." Those lyrics are just the start of a whole album filled with quotable quotes of sadness: superb articulations of dark feelings. Witness these, for example: "I was trying to run but the earth was holding me down like a hammer and nail" ("She Saw the Shadow") or "Another night I can't remember/I'm trying but it's just another blackout/another day gone" ("7th Level Shutdown"). The examples could go on and on.

Pollard's songwriting skills are at a peak as far as putting together cohesive emotional statements. In a way, Choreographed Man of War is Pollard taking the big rock sound he's been working in since Under the Bushes, Under the Stars and using it to explore the darker side of any person's emotional life, and letting the lyrical themes affect the style and tone of the music, even more so than on Isolation Drills. If that album at times matched crunchy guitars with dark themes, it also used triumphant hooks and string sections to offer a feeling of hope underneath. Choreographed Man of War doesn't do that. It's like if Isolation Drills hadn't followed "The Enemy" up with "Unspirited," but with more songs as dark as it. The one track on this album that has that majestic pop sense that Pollard is capturing so well lately is "Edison's Memos." Here he sings in a sublimely emotional way, and uses a darker bridge to accentuate the impact of the chorus even more. But still lyrically it's not triumphant or romantic, but offers a dark view of romantic relationships: "Under skies dark with alienation/we exchange love like radiation."

Musically, though the album maintains a cohesive enough feel to make it seem like a concept album (as most of Pollard's albums do, especially those under his own name), there's also diverse territory covered, from the moody folk-rock of "She Saw the Shadow" to the heavy-metal crunch of "Ballyhoo" (with a riff straight out of GBV's past, sounding quite like riffs from "Broadcastor House" and "Local Mix Up/Murder Charge").

As the album proceeds to its end, things get darker and weirder lyrically. The eighth and ninth songs have Pollard singing about looking for escape from the tough world, either through mind-altering substances in "Kickboxer Lightning" (an abstract song where Pollard sings of finding "some alternative to your head") or by succumbing to madness in "Bally Hoo." By the album's last track, the seven-minute, truly bizarre rocker "Instrument Beetle," Pollard/the narrator has truly lost it. Wrapped up in a mix of serious depression and warped dreams of someone helping him escape, he sings in a strained, exhausted-sounding voice. "I love no one in this world," he sings, and "Now I am standing here aloneI'm not happy to be here," repeatedly interjecting with the phrase "Watch me run/I can run," which sounds less like a proclamation of independence than a hope that there's still something in life that he has control over. As the music builds, he makes a final plea to an unnamed savior--"Stand by me/Hold my hand/wake me up/I'm your man"--but it's still one soaked with absolute hopelessness, as his final meandering statements include "I'm nobody to play with" and "we'll sink and dance."

There's loneliness in every sound of "Choreographed Man of War," from the opening sound of a buzzsaw to the closing voice, where a man describes meeting the coolest woman in the world and having no idea how to deal with her. The album's title might sound like it's about a hero ready for battle, but the songs within take the perspective of a man defeated. Like the war shield on the album's cover, he's battered and bruised.

Issue 6, July 2001 | next article

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