With a batting average like Pollard’s, you can afford to take this many swings.
Just this April, Guided by Voices released August by Cake, a double album advertised as Robert Pollard’s 100th album. Now, with August actually here, there comes yet another album under the beloved GBV moniker. Despite turning 60 later this year, Pollard shows no signs of slowing down, as indicated by the 15 new songs on How Do You Spell Heaven.
Usually, maddeningly prolific songwriters tend to be “outsider” figures—the enigmatic Jandek or lo-fi king R. Stevie Moore, for example. What makes Pollard unique is that he has managed to write this many songs (well over 2,000 by now) not through rampant experimentation (though there has been some of that), but through a commitment to melodic, punchy music with quirky lyrics. Not to mention an indebtedness towards ‘60s and 70’s rock, particularly The Who and others within the first wave of the British Invasion.
How he manages to produce so many songs within this idiom is anyone’s guess. Though there are certainly plenty of GBV songs that sound similar, he doesn’t seem to repeat himself. You’d think there would be only so many melody lines and chord progressions to choose from.
Nonetheless, any worry of diminishing returns is dispelled (at least for now) by How Do You Spell Heaven, one of the strongest GBV albums since their 2012 reunion. Joined by his most recent lineup of drummer Kevin March and guitarist Doug Gillard (both of whom have played with him before), alongside relative newbies Mark Shue on bass and Bobby Bare, Jr. on guitar, Pollard sounds like he has fresh wind in his sails.
From its playful opener, “The Birthday Democrats,” the sound is crisp. Despite the lo-fi origins of the band, Pollard seems to have become comfortable with a “mid-fi” sound. It’s accessible enough without altogether capitulating to commercialism and losing what is distinctive about the band’s sound.
From the jukebox-ready “Pearly Gates Smoke Machine” to straight-ahead rockers “Diver Dan” and “Paper Cutz,” the band sounds like it has an extra gear – “Cretinous Number Ones,” which even features hand-claps(!), not to mention quite, ahem, relevant lyrics. Elsewhere, Pollard’s voice isn’t afraid to show its age, especially on intriguing, partly acoustic numbers like the dramatic, theatrical “They Fall Silent,” “Tenth Century” and “How to Murder a Man.”
Oddly, as though rewarding those who make it through to the end, GBV seems to have opted to put the best songs last. The closing trio of “Low Flying Perfection,” “Nothing Gets You Real” and “Just to Show You” are all treasures. “Low Flying Perfection” features sublime double-tracked vocals, Pollard harmonizing with himself. “Nothing Gets You Real” finds GBV at their most Smiths-like, melancholic and melodic, while “Just to Show You” is as romantic as Pollard gets.
It’s easy to be suspicious of Pollard’s restlessness as a songwriter, if only because the sincerity it takes to believe new songs can make a difference is so rare. As long as this silver-haired, beer-guzzling songwriter is at work, there’ll be songs—and albums—galore.
But with a batting average like Pollard’s, you can afford to take this many swings.
Say it with me: G-B-V! G-B-V!