erasing clouds

Circus Devils, Gringo

review by dave heaton

Seven albums in, the Circus Devils is proving to be not just one of Robert Pollard’s strangest projects – that’s always been a given – but also one of his most eclectic. The schizophrenia that drives the band’s most frantic side can also lead them into gentler and even quite gorgeous territory. More acoustic in general, and more tuneful throughout, Gringo proves that definitively.

The eclecticism of the Circus Devils may come from the “anything goes” philosophy that seems to drive Pollard when he’s in more of an avant-garde mode. With Pollard, attempts at innovation can go either way. A sense of invention was behind the most classic Guided by Voices recordings, but also behind some of the more grating moments in his discography. Circus Devils, though, is where Pollard’s creativity melds with that of the Tobias brothers (Todd and Tim) – where the two brothers come up with music filled with atmosphere, and Pollard sings his surrealist lyrics over it. The whole Circus Devils project has always been about being unhinged, creating a mood full of weirdness and even fright. But still it’s never that far from moments of beauty or melody.

Gringo is probably the most accessible Circus Devils album in that way, but no less strange or doom-obsessed. At times it resembles a proper pop-rock album, the sort you can sing along to and blare from your car stereo. But still there are puzzles galore, and the album gets weirder the longer or closer that you listen.

The album’s opening track is a catchy, drivng rock number, “Witness Hill”, but one where death is in the air and Pollard’s voice has an ominous tone. “Every Moment Flame On” is oddly infectious. The first line, “to know what happened is absolutely the point,” is a shocker for a band so full of mystery. And the song itself has mysteries, as it cycles forward in a lovely way. The downcast ballad “Ships From Prison to Prison” is lovely and mysterious too: a calm goodbye song that Pollard sings straight, filled with longing even as the lyrics confuse. It’s a get-away song, evoking multiple genres of film or fiction. Gringo is like that start to finish. It feels like one cohesive epic, but if you try and follow the storyline you’ll be lost in a maze of genres, amid wizards (fantasy!) one moment and giant ants the next (horror!). Over here there’s a reference to people burned in public; over there, possibly gangsters (“are you protected / by the protection man?”, Pollard sings). The gorgeous “Before It Walks” is one of many songs that evokes crime stories, hard-boiled detective fiction, but it’s also a sad lament in moments, and overall seems to be about a baby. Oh, and there’s this line: “to see the forest through the trees / where I’ll be looming like Paul Bunyan with a chainsaw.”

Musically the album is filled with creepy film-score interludes and art-rock grinders, but also pretty and strange acoustic balladry. Rumination turns mystical, often; see “Monkey Head”. Like every Circus Devil album, it feels haunted, but those ghosts do less screaming and more gentle creeping and following. And of course, nothing is as it seems. There’s a lot to savor and decipher throughout. In “The Beast Falls Down”, Pollard sings out loudly, with emotion, over lovely acoustic guitar. He’s singing about your neighbor’s gun and “when the beast falls down”. “Arizona Blacktop Company” is the maybe creepiest example of the experimentation going on here. A series of startling noises – scurrying and cries – build to a crescendo and then, even more eerily, disappear.

With Gringo, you can get lulled into comfort, but then you’ll be stabbed in the face.


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