Though Guided by Voices’ sixth album since 2012, Cool Planet, doesn’t reach the heights of February’s Motivational Jumpsuit, it’s easily the most consistent of the band’s post-reunion albums. The production is pitched right between the endearing amateurism of 1993’s Vampire on Titus and the clean, professional faux-amateurism of 1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. The opening track, “Authoritarian Zoo,” starts discouragingly as a clip-clomping garage-rock yawner before breaking into a rousing chorus that repeats on a loop for a minute-plus, proving the guys haven’t lost their talent for transforming even the most mundane beginnings into what, in the moment, feels like the best rock song you’ve ever heard. The album hits those dizzying heights again on the title track, recalling past classics like “Man Called Aerodynamics” with its storming wave of frantic guitars.
The rest of Cool Planet isn’t populated with potential greatest-hits entries like those, but it isn’t waist-deep in half-assed chaff either. As much as tracks like “Psychotic Crush,” “Hat of Flames,” and “Pan Swimmer” try to sound like tossed off one-takes with their ramshackle performances and blankets of chintzy reverb, there’s too much fiery urgency in Robert Pollard’s vocals and Mitch Mitchell and Tobin Sprout’s guitars to fool us into thinking the band doesn’t care.
As in all of Guided by Voices’ recent albums, Sprout is pushed to the fore for a suite of songs, and it cleaves toward starkly arranged balladry. Only “Psychotic Crush” seeks to soar with its Ian Dury/T-Rex glam trappings. Songs like “Costume Makes the Man” and “You Get Every Game” are wistfully gathered around the campfire, recalling old four-track standards like “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” The placement of these stately waltzes among Pollard’s amplifier-pushing post-punk ravers makes for a more schizophrenic listening experience than even Guided by Voices is known for. But the experience is never exhausting, because every track reflects the loving craft of its creators. Even the one-minute micro-songs—“Pan Swimmer,” “Narrated by Paul”—brim with purpose. The latter is a piano-driven standout, finding the sweet spot between syrupy and affecting in 66 seconds.
Generally, the band has always been better served by going shorter with its songs, and the longest track here, “All American Boy,” provides further evidence of that. While still clocking in under four minutes, it sounds like a self-indulgent, deeply besotted Neil Young playing a very ragged medley of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Rockin’ in the Free World.” As the song tails off in a feedback loop, one is relieved to see it go. But given Guided by Voices’ reputation for mixing perfectly formed highs with cutting-floor drivel (even during their peak era), Cool Planet qualifies as a minor miracle and ample reason to give thanks for the continued reunion of one of indie rock’s most iconic bands.