A return to classic form on Lollipop would be nearly impossible for the Meat Puppets, a band whose initial career arc divided neatly across three discrete styles: the wooly post-punk of their first three albums, the squiggly rock of their late-'80s output, and the mainstream shift of their post-Nirvana period. The band's newest incarnation, one that has appeared over the three albums since their 2006 reunion, is less a new approach than a combination of the previous three, taking viable parts and reshaping them into a safe but still interesting new mode.
This can be a dreary prospect at times. After helping to lay the foundation for alt-country by offering a messy, tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to classic genre sounds, the band's surrender to a gentler, more languid method is depressing, a classic example of the influencer aping the influenced. The fact remains that any overt similarity to the Meat Puppets of yore, characterized by untamable guitar and harshly voiced vocals, is seemingly gone forever.
Curt Kirkwood now heads a band that's cleaned up, past the drug trauma and prison sentences, and it shows in his voice. The vocal work on Lollipop is surprisingly clean and crisp, all the huskiness and rough edges scrubbed away. He sounds downright crooner-like at times on "Incomplete," using his voice as a warm blanket rather than a wedge to make the music seem even more diffuse.
It's a credit to the group that they accept the limitations of age, spending less time bending over backward to reclaim older sounds than shaping a credible new one. "Damn Thing" is a restrained bit of pop-country songcraft that finds time for some arch absurdity and smoothly pleasing guitar work. And the band still manages to subvert something, even if it's just the expectations that have been established so far across this middling album, on "The Spider and the Spaceship," a bouncy country ballad that's nasty and sharp beneath its surface sweetness. But while the band maintains a glimmer of their former selves, writing sturdy, comfortable songs with a minimal capacity to surprise, Lollipop still sounds a little tired.