As Stephen King showed, self-cannibalization is hard. The title of Guided By Voices‘ 1994-96 “classic lineup” reunion album, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, seems to reflect this. Is it a reunion, a train put back on the tracks right where it derailed, or is it an act of self-mimickry? Had this thing dropped in early 1997, with its typically low-rent not-quite Hipgnosis cover art, it would have perched nicely amongst the band’s four-track masterpieces of the period.
The songs are short (naturally) bursts of intellect and anxiety. They’re periscopic too, which is kind of a first — Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout and company seem to be glancing at the world in slices and attempting answers. “Hang Mr. Kite” looks like a response of sorts to the Beatles, and “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” scans like an ode to the R&B hero who was unaccounted for in the days right after the Katrina flooding in New Orleans.
But the questions would have followed … has the band gone soft? There’s the neopsychedelic frisson back again for sure — Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson would recognize the kinship — but what’s up with the pastoral mode of “Doughnut For a Snowman,” with its recorder and its gloss of childhood magical thinking? “God Loves Us,” asserting over and over that “we are living proof” thereof — is that Tobin Sprout having a conversion, or is he simply referencing the oft-misquoted Benjamin Franklin line about beer (or was it wine?) and needling his band’s penchant for onstage drunkenness?
(Maybe the return to mid-’90s form just shows how important Sprout was to the process assayed by fellow GBVers Robert Pollard, Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Fennel. Not to say Pollard’s innumerable compositions lack heart, but that Sprout’s heart always tended to be more sleeveworn, the hurt and the yearning less oblique. cf. “Atom Eyes,” from Under the Bushes Under the Stars, 1996.)
Let’s Go Eat the Factory raises questions about the band (inasmuch as such a shifting multi-headed entity can be called band) and its intent with this album. By harking back to 1996, it sweeps the board clear of some really great music that just happened to be made subsequent, from Mag Earwhig! onward. Isolation Drills (2001) did not exist in isolation, is what I’m saying, and “Glad Girls” will forever be one of my favorite joyful spasms. When you polish your sound way up over the years and then fray it at the edges again — that’s a choice, and it begs inquiry. I like that in a record.