Robert Pollard has declared that Half Smiles Of The Decomposed will be the final Guided By Voices album, but what does that really mean? Pollard writes and records songs constantly. Sometimes he releases them under his own name, sometimes under some project name, and sometimes under the name Guided By Voices, a band whose lineup has the same turnover rate as the average Arby's. For a while, Pollard reserved the GBV name for his slickest work, but since returning to Matador after a two-album stint at TVT, he's returned to the old GBV formula of mixing fully formed songs with false starts, fragments, and ideas struggling to take shape. Few would call the results wholly satisfying, but even the weaker records have had their charms, and there seemed to be no reason why Pollard and GBV shouldn't keep playing to the faithful for years to come.
But now the end is near. Even if no one seems to know the difference between Guided By Voices and Robert Pollard touring with a bunch of guys, Half Smiles Of The Decomposed represents the end of a band name that's become synonymous with one man's multi-decade, occasionally quixotic, seldom-boring quest to craft perfect pop using a rotating cast of friends, borrowed and battered equipment, and the persistent sounds in his own head. Whatever Pollard does next, he'll do it in a smaller spotlight.
Half Smiles ends the band quietly. Pollard does boost the voltage like before, but the album's apparent air of consideration is rare for GBV. Even the usual throat-clearing album-opener "Everybody Thinks I'm A Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)" sounds fussed-over, while slower tracks like "Window Of My World" sound positively delicate. This doesn't really improve the slipping hit-to-miss ratio GBV has produced for the past few albums, but it does set Half Smiles apart. As before, the standout songs, like "Girls Of Wild Strawberries" and "Huffman Prairie Flying Field," nicely offset the misfires.
Named for a stretch of Dayton land where the Wright Brothers tested their airplanes, "Huffman" ends the album, and the band, with a majestic melody and some typically cryptic Pollard lines about comebacks, pregnant skies, and something lasting "far too long." The song connects Pollard to a tradition of backroom tinkering with unexpectedly far-reaching results, and provides a fine bookend to the career of a group that had its share of crashes over the years, but somehow always found a way to fly.