While Jack Sells the Cow is the second solo album of 2012 for Guided by Voices main man Robert Pollard, it's set apart from its predecessor, Mouseman Cloud, by its lack of collaboration with any of his GbV bandmates. Initially, Pollard going it alone sounds more or less the same as not. The songs are a little more prog-leaning and a little less pop, more akin to the bloodshot psychedelia of side project Boston Spaceships than the melody-centric fare of the reunited Guided by Voices. Outside of that, most everything else seems in line with the formula of Pollard's 2010s solo albums: relatively brief songs, bizarre and sometimes random lyrics, a healthy dose of classic rock influence in the form of straightforward rhythms and huge guitars. On closer inspection, though, the album begins to take on a strange life of its own. While staggering prolificness and albums stuffed with short songs have long been calling cards, Jack Sells the Cow cuts off at a surprisingly standard 12 songs, clocking in at just over half an hour. There's usually a ratio of a few big-hearted pop standouts to mostly weird freak rock numbers, with a smattering of bizarre experiments thrown in for good measure, but here the songs all become some strange combination of the three. Only the lively "Pontius Pilate Heart" pops with the upbeat catchiness that trademarks the best of Pollard's work. The rest of the album feels somehow darker, even in its moments of melodic soaring, as on "Big Groceries." At its lowest points, the album feels tired or despairing. Pollard's solo albums are largely "the good, the bad, and the ugly" kind of affairs, with the really rough moments enhancing how great the great moments are. Those dynamics are missing here for the most part. Only "The Rank of a Nurse" sounds truly phoned-in, with ridiculously obvious lyric schemes, out-of-tune piano, and an overall embarrassing approach to a half-finished thought of a song. "The March of Merrillville" has a hint of the spoken/snarled-sung delivery of Craig Finn's story-songs with the Hold Steady, suggesting maybe Bob has been taking notes on the progress of some of his peers. The album rocks out more than usual, too, forgoing the collaged feel and entirely acoustic passages of many of his albums. Jack Sells the Cow isn't bad, but something is missing, even though the entirely formulaic approach he's established over the dozen or more records that came before is intact on this one. While there are still some bright pop moments and interestingly demented freakouts like "Who's Running My Ranch," the album as a whole feels more hollow than even Pollard's sometimes tossed-off song fragments. Superfans may "get" Bob enough to see the bigger picture in this set of tunes, but for most, the lack of edges, emotional connectivity, or the kind of dramatic shifts Pollard is known for equates to a record without much to hold on to.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas