Losing voices

Robert Pollard disbands an indie-rock institution

"I'm getting too old to be a gang leader." So says Robert Pollard, frontman and driving force behind indie-rock mainstay Guided by Voices, in the press release for his band's most recent — and final — album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Pollard may well be right: He'll turn 47 next month, an age at which fronting a loud, raucous rock band without looking absurd becomes increasingly difficult.

But the singer's advancing years only tell half the story. "There's a sense of maturity," he continues, "and even integrity, I think, in continuing as one's own self, instead of as a gang."

To be sure, membership in the Guided by Voices gang has taken its creative toll on Pollard, who's obviously seeking to stretch his artistic muscles.

After all, "maturity," let alone "integrity," was once a concept as foreign to the Guided by Voices experience as moshing is to a Barry Manilow concert. While it didn't always thrash and surge with the power of three-chord rock, the band's music was nonetheless erected on a platform of disregard for conventional melodies and structures, for straightforward lyricism, and for songs that lasted longer than two-and-a-half minutes. That impulse is all over albums like 1994's critical watershed Bee Thousand or 1996's Under the Bushes Under the Stars, which cemented the band's reputation for short, often dissolute bursts of nonlinear guitar rock and jittery non-sequiturs.

By the late 1990s, Guided by Voices had also cultivated a reputation as one of the indie nation's hardest-rocking live acts.

That frenetic live energy betrayed Pollard's increasingly evident rock 'n' roll ambition: Pollard, an avowed fan of the Who and Cheap Trick, made a tangible grasp for wider audiences via the arena-friendly pop-rock sounds of 1999's Do The Collapse (produced by Ric Ocasek) and 2001's Isolation Drills.

The hard-rocking stage shows, Pollard's restless songwriting, his seeming bid for mainstream acceptance: All of these fed into the growing cult of Guided by Voices as an indie-rock institution. Pollard's antics certainly encouraged that status, but post-Drills albums like Decomposed and 2002's Universal Truths and Cycles also show him trapped by it.

He struggled to find balance between his audience's expectations and his own artistic longings. "I need to get back to a lack of professionalism where there's a certain degree of awkwardness," he explains in the Decomposed release. That struggle — awkwardness vs. professionalism — has long been an underlying theme played out behind the scenes in the songwriter's work. (Last year's best-of collection, Human Amusement at Hourly Rates, nods explicitly to that dichotomy in its title.) Indeed, when the hyper-prolific Pollard succeeds artistically — whether within the confines of Guided by Voices, his innumerable side projects or as a solo artist — it's in the uneasy collusion of off-kilter chords, willfully eccentric lyrics, transporting melodies and punchy, occasionally uplifting arrangements.

By contrast, latter-day efforts, while not without their moments of clarity (see "The Best of Jill Hives" from last year's Earthquake Glue), suggest an awkwardness of a different sort. Instead of the tension of colliding musical ideas, they reveal a songwriter struggling to find room for expression in a band that has become a brand. That brand carries its own set of stylistic expectations, and Pollard has seemingly exhausted the possibilities.

By choosing to retire a cherished trademark, Pollard has opened the door to a future in which he's free to awkwardly challenge himself to expand the parameters of his well-worn approach. It's time to let some new voices guide the way.