With Moses on a Snail, the new Robert Pollard album – his first solo record since January! – officially out next Tuesday, it seems like a good opportunity to talk a little bit about my Robert Pollard obsession. And I think it is an obsession. At least an unhealthy interest. Between his work with his original band, Guided by Voices, solo recordings, and various other projects and bands, including his new band, Boston Spaceships, I have more than 1,100 Pollard songs on my iPod. While that by no means represents a definitive collection, I think it shows more than a passing interest. Some of you may have no idea who Pollard is, or why I would collect his prolific output with such loyalty and enthusiasm. In the paragraphs to follow, I’ll try to explain, but keep in mind that this, by its very nature, has to be a long post.
So, for me this happy journey began in 2003, when a college friend and I decided to exchange CDs featuring some of the music we’ve been listening to in recent years. The mix he made for me included the song “Everywhere with Helicopter,” from the Guided by Voices record Universal Truths and Cycles. I was instantly intrigued by its clever intervention with British Invasion musical tropes, its engaging and nonsensical lyrics, and its full throttle pop sensibilities that combined with a kind of edgy (or, perhaps, sloppy?) disregard for form. I began to snatch up everything I could find by Guided by Voices, and then the solo Pollard material, and then the various side projects.
Now, I admit I have a slight tendency toward the obsessive – arguably not such a bad quality for someone whose work involves a great deal of research. It is also true that the my obsessive impulses can manifest in curious ways. My wife will happily tell you the story of how, while studying for my oral exams in grad school, I began to compulsively stock up on gallon bottles of drinking water. At one point I had more than three dozen, and that made me happy. So the endless output of a genuine musical genius, who can be counted on to release 4 or 5 major albums over the course of a year, along with a handful of singles and EPs, certainly feeds into that urge to — not precisely collect, but certainly amass.
And you know your obsessed when you love this sloppy video just because you get to look inside Pollard’s house.
There is, however, also something absolutely compelling in Pollard’s own story. Guided by Voices began as a kind of collective of Pollard and drunken friends who would record in basements on 4-tracks or boom boxes. They didn’t play live and they had almost no audience. In the early ‘90s, when the members of this circle were in their mid-30s, the demands of family life began to fray at the band, and Pollard (then a middle school teacher) knew he could no longer afford to keep making these albums. He therefore put all his effort into one last shot, an album called Propeller – so called because he hoped it would propel the band to fame.
And, miraculously, that is exactly what happened. Propeller was a embraced by the indie scene, and Guided by Voices became a celebrated, crucially-lauded band, widely regarded as one of the most influential pioneers of the “lo-fi” movement. Pollard later became interested in using the studio and presenting a cleaner sound, but back then he was all about the rawness of the song in its early incarnation – a committed imperfectionist. So, these guys went from working class dreamers to celebrated alterna-rock-stars. It’s one of those awesome stories that just makes you happy to be alive, right? Maybe it’s just me.
Anyhow, after another album and a few singles and EPs, GbV released Bee Thousand in 1994, now widely-regarded as a rock masterpiece. Some critics (for example: me!) regard it as the greatest rock album of all time and space. Others rank it somewhat lower, though will put it on their list of best 100 rock albums. In any case, it is awesomely great.
Here, for example, is “Echoes Myron” from Bee Thousand. Does music get any better than this?
A couple of years later most of the core original members (most notably the very talented Tobin Sprout who released some excellent solo records of his own) left the band, which received much attention but generated little revenue, in order to work their jobs and pay their mortgages. Pollard continued, and pretty soon any group of musicians he dubbed Guided by Voices was, de facto, Guided by Voices. Yet, at the same time, Pollard began to release solo albums, often with many of same musicians that appeared on the GbV albums, and yet these always had a different tone and flavor than Guided by Voices, even as that tone and flavor changed radically over the years.
So, what is it about Pollard’s music that resonates with me? Besides the fact that there is much of it, and a mastery of the entire corpus is damn near impossible (and these factors should not be underestimated) much of it has to do with Pollard wearing his own influences and loves on his sleeve. Pollard knows his material, and much of his work comes across as an homage to the music he loves, so in virtually everything he does there are winks, nods and references to everything from the Beatles, the Who, Cheap Trick, and many, many more. Pollard loves a catchy hook as much as anyone in music, but he also loves to mess with that hook, to defamiliarize and render the most familiar chord uneasy. He has experimented with longer songs, but at (I think) his best, he gets in and out of his best material and his weakest experiments in under three minutes. His music is also impossible to get on a single, or even several, listens. You can listen to core Guided by Voices albums dozens of times before you realize that songs like “Demons are Real” or “Are You Faster,” which you once thought of as silly experiments, are now among your favorites.
In short, it can be hard to get a handle even on material you think you know well. I like the album Robert Pollard is off to Business, but I can’t think of a single song off of it I would put on a compellation. I think Superman was a Rocker is among the worst things Pollard has ever released, yet it contains the song “Love your Spaceman,” one of my all-time favorites.
There is also something about his lyrical output that adds to the addiction. Lyrically, his songs often come across as word salad, but in my view he is an absolute genius at crafting impressionistic lyrics that mean nothing and yet somehow mysteriously convey the mood of his song. Pollard plays with meaning and syntax and parts of speech so that his lyrics become a kind of labyrinth of warped signification in which the listener is constantly disoriented and displaced, forcing an intellectual engagement with something both beautiful and elusive. How awesome is that?
Take, for example, the song “Harrison Adams,” from the amazing EP Motel of Fools (amazing, yes, but probably not for the uninitiated). Here are the first half of the lyrics. The core of the song hinges on the chorus, a fairly traditional rock song lament – I love you but you don’t love me anymore – but dig how the imagery of the build-up to the chorus creates a twisted, and yet vividly sharp, image of sadness and loss and disappointment.
There he sits
Guardian the fish market
Splitting hairs and atoms
Eying the salt target
Please to preach
The son of a jack poker
Panting like a ram worker
Give into the umpire
Feel his air
That’s where we stay
He says: You aren’t happy with me
And I know it
And you are the world to me
But it’s all gone now
It’s all gone now
So, if you are not a Pollard fan, and yet you are somehow still reading this, where do you begin? I think there’s no better place to start than the Guided by Voices retrospective, Human Amusement at Hourly Rates. There are quite literally dozens of songs I could have argued ought to be on this compellation, but that’s the nature of the beast. It remains a great into. I recommend, by the way, giving it at least three listens, and if you still say, “What the hell is this garbage?” then take about a month off and go back for one more spin. You’ll get it. If you want to start with a particular album, Bee Thousand is absolutely the best, but it may be a bit raw for the uninitiated. Perhaps Mag Earwhig! will answer. As far as the solo and side project material, there is the two CD retrospective Crickets, which is a very good sampler, but the non-kool-aid drinkers may find its nearly three hours of music a bit overwhelming. I would start with Guided by Voices, and when you reach the point where you feel the itch, and you must have more, dig in anywhere you like. It’s all good.