What George Harrison was to the Beatles and John Entwistle was to the Who, Tobin Sprout was to Guided by Voices -- a talented songwriter in a band that already had more celebrated and prolific tunesmiths. Given Robert Pollard's ability to crank out songs at a pace unknown to mere mortals, Sprout's songs rarely got the prominence they deserved during his time with GbV, but he was capable of generating a sweet wistfulness and yearning that his beery bandmate couldn't touch. Since the "classic lineup" of Guided by Voices collapsed in 2014, Sprout has laid low as a musician and songwriter, but 2017's The Universe and Me is a glorious reminder that he hasn't lost his touch. The Universe and Me is Sprout's first proper solo album (not counting a live album and some songs for a film soundtrack) since Lost Planets & Phantom Voices in 2003, but the good news is the man hasn't lost his touch or signature style. Sprout still can write simple but expressive melodies that please the ear, and his lyrics and vocals have a boyish charm and sense of wonder that belies the fact he was 61 when he cut this album. The Universe and Me also reveals that while Robert Pollard may have given up on lo-fi as a production style, Sprout has not; this isn't quite as low tech as Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes, but the final product still sounds more like an early Guided by Voices album than anything that band has released in at least 20 years. And the sometimes wobbly homemade tone of these recordings works well for Sprout; there's a Brian Wilson-esque note of bittersweet nostalgia in tunes like "When I Was a Boy" and "Cowboy Curtains" that wouldn't work as well with a slicker delivery, while the rave-up guitars of "A Walk Across the Human Bridge" and the Lennon-influenced piano of the title cut similarly benefit rather than suffer from the buzzy tone. Sprout either can't or won't produce songs at the same pace as Robert Pollard, but what he does bring us is consistently pleasurable, and The Universe and Me is a lovely reminder of how many good things he brought to GbV -- and how much he still has to offer on his own.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming