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Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots a UFO (Album Review)

Robert Pollard continues the most prolific outpour in all of popular music with yet another defiant winner.

Ah, Guided By Voices, where to begin? Their 1983 birth in Dayton, Ohio? Its legendary three-classic LP run of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars? Robert Pollard’s prolific output? The “classic lineup” reunion for Matador’s 21st birthday party in Vegas? Or on this very LP, Class Clown Spots a UFO, their 18th proper studio effort? Really all of those things can be combined and are worth a mention when talking about, taking in, or explaining Class Clown Spots a UFO. The classic lineup’s been reunited and going strong, this is its strongest release since that classic three-LP run, Pollard’s finally back at the top of his game, and the band’s held onto its Midwest roots and still manage to sound fresh and vital.

Make no mistake, Class Clown Spots a UFO is a classic Guided By Voices record, with brief songs that almost seem fragmented until you realize how complete they actually are, never lacking passion or honesty. Pollard may not be a pop perfectionist, but he’s always pretty damn close to one, which is an incredibly impressive feat considering the amount of material he releases with various different projects. The closest thing Guided By Voices have had to a “hit” was “Game of Pricks” back in 1995. Their songs have never catered to any particular set of rules; they’ve always just stood out as unbelievably good left-field pop songs that bristle with a passion more befitting of a political punk band. It’s part of what makes them so interesting: they’re not rallying for anything but themselves and what they believe in, all of which can be found within the lyrics to Class Clown Spots a UFO from science fiction to broken relationships.

Again, in typical Guided By Voices fashion, the tracklist may seem intimidating at first glance, being 21 songs long. But the record still manages to run under 40 minutes, making it a little shorter than most full-lengths being put out today. Leading off with “He Rises! Our Union Bellboy”, it quickly becomes very clear that their aim is higher here than it was with their first full-length effort from this year, the reintroductory Let’s Go Eat the Factory. From the surprisingly expansive and altogether brilliant opening track, Class Clown Spots a UFO never hesitates to look back. It goes full throttle as if to make clear that their decision to come back wasn’t a fluke. They couldn’t have had put out a more compelling argument.

Granted, there are a few moments in a select few songs that don’t quite hit their mark, but it’s those miscues that make Guided By Voices so interesting and raw. This is honest music. It also helps that any time they land on any of those false notes, they’re immediately remedied by one element or another. There’s a lot more subtlety on Class Clown Spots a UFO than one might expect, whether it be a light orchestral arrangement buried in the production, or a simple three-note guitar drone. Another thing helping matters is that when Pollard hits his stride, he’s a lyricist of surprising warmth and pathos. All of that is evidenced very early on, even within the two-song punch of the tender “Forever Until It Breaks” and the rollicking title track.

“Class Clown Spots a UFO” is an interesting staple in the band’s legendary discography, because when it first appeared, it was a thing of absolute devastation, a song of heartbreak. Here, it’s reworked into a warm celebration. That transition from bleak to utterly winsome seems to serve as a good metaphor for the recent change of fate for the band. It also serves as a persistent reminder of Guided By Voices’ enviable versatility. After that outburst of happiness and warmth comes the first of five songs on Class Clown Spots a UFO that come in under the “one-minute-or-under” mark, “Chain to the Moon”, which is another song that emulates loneliness to an unnerving degree and is one of the record’s best songs. Not to be outdone, two of the other four short songs, “Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head” and “Lost in Spaces”, can boast the same claim. The remaining two, the Pavement-esque “Fighter Pilot” and “Worm with 7 Broken Hearts”, recallin early-era Black Lips, come fairly close to being able to say the same as well.

Really, the heart of Class Clown Spots a UFO lies in the songs that are around the one-and-a-half- to two-and-a-half -minute mark. This is a classic Guided By Voices record, after all. Of those, there aren’t any that don’t stand out (with the possible exception of “Tyson’s High School”), making Class Clown Spots A UFO one of the strongest LPs that Guided By Voices have ever released. Many of them play up a psychedelic influence on a much more noticeable level than they had previously. The 60s psych-pop flourishes only help define some of the songs and add an extra dimension to the overall mood and tone to Class Clown Spots a UFO.

However, the most surprising aspect of this record is how devastating some of the slower songs end up being. Guided By Voices have never been as adept at breaking hearts as igniting them, at least never this consistently. Every time they touch the breaks on their tempo, they unleash a small but almost violently despaired track. When their universe collapses, so does this listener. This is especially noticeable on “Be Impeccable” and the short “Lost in Spaces”. Fortunately, the band doesn’t leave the record hanging on that kind of note. It wouldn’t have fit the record as well as what they do decide to end with, the fierce “No Transmission”: “No Transmission” expertly brings everything to a crashing close, re-igniting an energetic fire that’ll leave the listener on an adrenaline high and have him anxiously awaiting their follow-up record, Bears for Lunch, to be released later this year. It’s not a rumor anymore, folks. Guided By Voices are back. In a big way.