Tobin Sprout will always be the member from Guided By Voices that consistently changed the pace of the albums and wrote many, what I would consider “softer” tracks for the band. These songs were dependable and steady while able to find a balance with Robert Pollard’s dominant songwriting. Fast-forward to 2020 and the gifted songwriter, artist and illustrator returns to the album medium and has produced one of his best albums to date with Empty Horses.
The record starts off with a very Tobin like whimsical beginning in “Wings Prelude,” which is 1:26 long, features his voice over a piano and then builds with a gorgeous harmonizing ending. This track sets your expectations that you will hear something similar to his previous outings, like 2010’s The Bluebirds Of Happiness Tried To Land On My Shoulder or Let’s Welcome The Circus People (1999), but when the following acoustic guitar driven “The Return” strums along you start thinking Empty Horses might be going in a different direction. Third track, “Breaking Down,” solves the mystery as Tobin Sprout has truly crossed into a heartfelt Americana delivery, complete with pedal steel, that I will admit at first is a bit shocking. Not because it isn’t good but because I was expecting the album to rock up like his 2017 release The Universe And Me.
Americana music is honest by nature and Empty Horses finds Sprout at his most focused and sincere. Justice, faith and the struggles within life are topics that all appear here. The album can be haunting, fulfilling, and transcending as Sprout’s pure and veteran voice walks you down each song’s path with some of your favorite components of his past records. The harmonies on “On Golden Rivers” are peacefully spectacular while his gentle and folkish delivery on “Every Sweet Soul” is fantastic as the layered harmonies once again get locked in your head.
For me, Empty Horses is a giant risk for Tobin Sprout and initially felt like a potential miscue. For this reason, I would tell fans to stick with this album and give it multiple spins before casting a final judgement. When you consider that the record is still finished in 30 minutes, has multiple killer harmonized vocals and even finds some gritty guitar work during “All In My Sleep,” Empty Horses is still the Tobin Sprout everyone knows. It actually feels like the perfect record for this moment in Sprout’s career as its polished but weathered Americana turns out to be a timeless keeper and one of the better albums released this year.
Key Tracks: “On Golden Rivers” / “Every Sweet Soul” / “Antietam”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Band / Jay Farrar / Neil Young
– Reviewed by Thomas Wilde