The Upshot: more evidence that, as time goes by, Guided By Voices’ other songwriter may be aging more gracefully.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
During his tenure in Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout emerged as the considered, deliberate yin to Robert Pollard’s hyper-prolific, shotgun-attack yang. Spread judiciously over the band’s most iconic albums, Sprout’s best songs (“Mincer Ray,” “It’s Like Soul Man”) served as a kind of melancholic leavening even when they rocked your face off.
Now 61, Sprout still has the voice of a 22-year-old, a perfect complement for the lo-fi sound he arguably invented with Pollard and has, in varying degrees, trafficked in since. Though it’s more rough-edged and rudimentary than most Sprout solo outings, the intimacy of the rough-hewed production on The Universe and Me pulls you close while also leaving you to wonder what some of these Beatles-esque melodies would sound like with a George Martin (or even a Phil Spector) producing them.
The first single and lead-off track on Sprout’s sixth record under his own name — “Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow” — is a power pop beauty held over from the GBV days, and perfectly suitable to bridge the divide of years via churning guitar fuzz, red-lined drums and a vintage Sprout sing-along chorus. But it’s also a bit of an outlier; the other rockers here — “A Walk Across the Human Bridge,” “Just One Kid (Takes On The World)” — are the LP’s least impressive moments.
That’s in part because they sound almost rote next to Sprout’s balladry, which can swell your heart to the bursting point. Filled with images of treasure chests, swirling parades and the like, The Universe and Me reads like a gentle but honest letter to Sprout’s young self, touching on topics like comic books, finding your purpose in life, and growing old — fertile territory for an organic nostalgia that often makes Sprout’s songs feel timeless.
Take the quartet of tunes at the center of the 14-song album. “When I Was a Boy” opens with on an old stand-up recorded so dimly it’s just this side of prepared piano, until a mellotron lifts the melody into the light as the best McCartney/Lennon compositions did. The fuzzy guitar of “Cowboy Curtains” follows for two minutes, but this time it’s Sprout’s cross-woven harmonies that really make the chorus elegiac. “Heavenly Bones” strips the guitar crunch away for piano and a simple drumbeat while Sprout recalls a parade as it “swirled and slipped away/we stood beside ourselves, carried this dream world to the ground,” and by the time the mid-tempo jangle pop of “Heart of Wax” rolls around, Sprout’s won you over again.
The album could do with a little pruning, and without Pollard’s manic voice as a foil the lo-fi production can wear a listener down some by the end. (By contrast, 1997’s Moonflower Plastic sounds like an ELO album.) But The Universe and Me offers more evidence that, as time goes by, Guided By Voices’ other songwriter may be aging more gracefully.
DOWNLOAD: “When I Was a Boy,” “Cowboy Curtains,” “Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow” — John Schacht