I first encountered Guided By Voices in a pile of free CDs. It was 1994, I was working as an intern at Billboard magazine in New York City, and one of the undeniable perks of the gig was the massive amount of freebies that poured into the mag in that pre-Internet era.
I discovered a lot of great new music that summer, but nothing that blew my mind quite like the work of Robert Pollard and his band Guided By Voices. While it may sound a bit absurd, it felt like I’d discovered a secret Beatles nobody knew about but me.
GbV’s seminal disc Bee Thousand hit me like a thousand surreal butterflies singing pop tunes, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Their very best songs make me want to scream along at the top of my lungs, anthems for those who didn’t know they needed an anthem.
It’s hard to nail down Guided By Voices. They’re a rock band with a strong power-pop vibe, and an often-nonsensical stew of lyrics that make just as much sense as you want them to. At their peak, each album from GbV feels like a message from another planet made just for me – lo-fi and crackling with pretty little mistakes, a radio stuck between stations on the coolest sounds around. On stage, they were a boozing, debauched riot far different from the brittle beauty of their albums.
I like bands that feel bottomless. Acts that have deep backlists, frequent changes in style and approach, and a dogged determination to see their own vision through. The Bowies, the Zappas, the Nick Caves, the Pollards. A self-proclaimed jock from Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard isn’t someone you’d pick to be one of the busiest songwriters of all time.
And he’s prolific. Good god, he’s prolific. Pollard has a compulsion that drives him to perpetually come up with new songs – more than 2000 in his career to date, spread out over more than 100 albums by Guided By Voices, solo albums and an entire stadium full of side bands and one-of projects.
I mean jeez, I’m a pretty big fan, I’ve got something like 60 of Pollard’s various albums GbV and otherwise, and I’m still a long way from having it all. Still, nothing for me quite tops that absolutely golden stretch from album no. 3 (Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia) to album no. 11 (Do The Collapse).
A recent biography of Pollard, Closer You Are by Matthew Cutter, does a pretty good job of attempting to nail down GbV’s niche appeal. It’s particularly strong on the band’s early years, sketching Pollard as an eager young rock fan who became a professional teacher with musician dreams. Pollard was the kind of teenager who’d literally spend hours making up dozens of pretend album covers for his imaginary bands. The after-hours musician didn’t actually “make it” until he was in his mid-30s.
The flood never stops. After breaking up for the first time in 2004, GbV returned just a few years later and the albums have been coming one, two or three a year at least ever since. Pollard is 62 now, and still banging out the hits for a very devoted fan base.
That can be to GbV’s detriment for some. Of their 13 (!!!) albums since 2012’s revival, there’s always a few great songs, a lot of good ones, maybe one or two dogs. The music has lost that mysterious edge it first had in the 1990s, but still has plenty of great hooks and riffs. But the constant flow of new material makes it kind of hard to sit down and soak them in properly.
That’s just Bob’s way, like it or lump it. Yet it’s kind of fun to pick up GbV album No. 26 or Pollard side project No. 37 and find a few songs that sound like they should’ve been massive hits in some alternate universe. He won’t stop. Maybe he can’t stop.
And maybe that’s the reason we Guided By Voices fans keep coming back, album after album after album. They’re songs just for us, in the coolest club in the land, and while they’ll never be as omnipresent as a Taylor Swift hit maybe, they’re magic all the same.