Tobin Sprout is best known in indie circles as a key member and preeminent songwriter for Guided By Voices between the years of 1987 to 1997 and 2010 to 2014. Sprout’s latest album is a ten-song affair titled Empty Horses. The record is his eighth as a solo artist and, when compared to the songs penned during Tobin’s years in GBV, is a much more mature and serious collection with respect to lyrical content and musical style.
A somber, sustained piano chord opens Empty Horses for the song “Wings Prelude”, a thoughtful ballad that lasts under a minute and a half and ends with Sprout mournfully repeating, “Hey now, I’ve called your bluff.” The song is a bold choice for an album opener as its funereal tone hardly feels welcoming and, if not for its brevity, may have been considered a better fit further into the sequence. “The Return” follows and feels downright cheery in comparison to its predecessor. Empty Horses unfurls itself beautifully with the soaring “Breaking Down”. Punctuated with piano and a lovely slide guitar running through, “Breaking Down” is a standout moment that finds Sprout singing about the gentle pull of time. Side A is concluded with a country rock number titled “The Man I Used to Know”. Although just barely midtempo, the song is the most “rocking” Empty Horses gets.
Empty Horses’ second half opens with a pair of acoustic songs, “Every Sweet Soul” followed by the album’s title track. Both feature Tobin accompanied only by a guitar and his own backing vocals. Additional instrumentation falls back into the mix during “Antietam”. Written from the perspective of a man born in the 1800s, in just under three and a half minutes, Sprout tells the life story of a Union soldier who ultimately dies in the battle of the song’s namesake. The epic “All in My Sleep” is Empty Horses’ penultimate moment. Besides its six-plus minute running time, the song distinguishes itself with a fuzzed-out, psychedelic guitar solo in the first two minutes before downshifting to a thoughtfully strummed acoustic chord progression that’s soon joined by a piano, building to include a slide guitar and drums. Empty Horses ends with the short piano ballad “No Shame”. Biblical references abound as Sprout’s fragile voice sings the record’s final lines, “Crawl away, you’re in danger, boy, surely from your coffin you’ll see, there’s no shame on you, no shame.”
Sprout’s latest offering is a tender affair from beginning to end. What the album lacks in cheerful buoyancy, it more than makes up for in prayerful introspection. If you’re a GBV fan expecting moments of raucous indie rock absurdism, you’re better off revisiting any of Guided By Voices’ studio albums. If, however, you’re in the mood for delicately sung, contemplative lyrics joined with emotive, largely balladic instrumentation, look no further.