This space should probably be used to ruminate on the highlights of Guided by Voices' twenty-odd-year career, but really, if you don't know them by now, you probably didn't really care that much to begin with. A quick synopsis for those who need it: schoolteacher starts band, becomes endearing lo-fi indie icon, quits teaching, crisscrosses the globe, fires countless bandmates along the way and writes several thousand of the greatest pop songs known to man, all while drinking copious amounts of Bud Light and Jack Daniels.
Half Smiles of the Decomposed isn't quite the guns-blazing finale I always imagined the last GBV album would be, but it never becomes a limp-wristed approximation of the band in any of its previous guises. As a pure artifact, it's damn near perfect -- the warts-and-all state of their union circa 2004. They're a little older, a little tipsier and still completely infatuated with the idea of making rock 'n' roll...which begs the question, why is Bob Pollard pulling the plug on one of the world's most revered outfits?
Like the group's last few efforts, Half Smiles is definitely mid-fi -- and much like its recent predecessors, it requires a few airings to really take shape. The melodies aren't quite as instantaneous as those of "Tractor Rape Chain" or "Cut-Out Witch", but once you truly sink your teeth into "The Closets of Henry" and "Girls of Wild Strawberries", you'll find them to be just as juicy -- and moreover, just as quintessentially GBV. "Window of My World" is this album's "Hold on Hope" -- a plaintive ballad wrapped in skittering guitars and limitless faith that, twenty years ago, could well have enjoyed a stint in the hit parade.
Wisely, Pollard and the boys have toned down the prog incantations that became Earthquake Glue's most recognizable hallmark, choosing instead to inhabit a floating space somewhere between the original British Invasion and spangly '70s arena rock. The glitter-soaked bombast of "The Closets of Henry" and "Huffman Prairie Flying Field" hints at sequined jumpsuits hidden in their closets, while the wistful melodies and crunchy chorus of "Sleep Over Jack" is all barmy jackboot love and mop-top majesty. Pollard's marriage of the stratospheric and the earthly has always been one of GBV's defining characteristics, and with Half Smiles he strikes a near-perfect balance of the two. Perhaps that's the reason he's chosen to pack it in -- or it could simply be, as he's coyly stated, that he's tired of "being a gang leader". One thing is for certain: Half Smiles raises as many questions as it offers answers pertaining to the band's demise.
"The end" seems a horribly relative term; Pollard's has stated openly that he's not going to stop recording or releasing albums, and no GBV diehard worth his or her salt truly believes that this break-up is going to stick. Even if this truly is the end of the line for GBV, it's simply a new beginning for Pollard. I imagine that, many decades (and releases) from now, someone will find him slumped over with his guitar, having scrawled out four or five final blasts of obtusely perfect guitar pop before making his way to the pearly gates.