by Michael Goldberg
Monday, July 1, 2002
GBV's Abstract Expressionism
Putting the mystery back in rock
I've been tripping to Guided by Voices' Universal Truths and Cycles. One minute we're "Everywhere With Helicopter," the next we're being called "Back to the Lake." "Pretty Bombs" are exploding, and we're flying on "Wings of Thorn." Behold! The "Skin Parade"! The "Christian Animation"! The "Storm Vibrations"!
Listening to a Guided by Voices album is akin to wandering blindfolded along a carnival midway. Like the exotic sounds and smells, the voices muffled from inside tents or behind curtains, the lyrics and music are within your grasp, but you can't "see" them. I mean, what does "Everywhere With Helicopter" mean? And who is calling you "Back to the Lake"? And what does "the lake" represent, anyway? Life? Death? The soul?
"You don't want to just connect the dots for the listener," says DJ Shadow in a profile in The Wire, and he could just as well be talking about the music of GBV as his own creations.
The leader of GBV is songwriter/singer Robert Pollard. He grew up on '60s rock 'n' roll, the music of The Who and The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie. But down the line he also dug punk rock and Devo, and much strange, less straightforward music. All of these influences have resulted in GBV music that's at once classic in sound and sometimes as difficult to make sense of as the Surrealists' automatic writing.
Thus you find yourself singing, at the top of your lungs, some line like "Cheyenne I'm sending out satellites/ Cheyenne I'm hovering quite largely..." without having any idea of the meaning behind those phrases..
And so it is that, lately, I have come to think that Pollard's greatest gift to rock, beyond the gorgeous melodies and endless hooks that populate his songs, is putting mystery back into the music. Dispensing with the literal. This is rock as Abstract Expressionism.
But it is also rock powerful, dramatic, guitar-chords rock, cut with some lo-fi weirdness. Everywhere you turn you come up against devastating guitar riffs, vocal hooks, wave upon wave of glorious noise. Loud, electric rock.
Sometimes Pollard does give us a line we can understand right away. In "Storm Vibrations," one of my favorite songs this year, Pollard asks, again and again, "Does it hurt you? To love, I mean."
There are 19 songs on GBV's latest album, Universal Truths and Cycles, one just over 35 seconds in length, and one that lasts nearly five minutes. The songs fit together like puzzle pieces. No, that's not right. These 19 songs are perfectly arranged. Each sets up the next, balancing heavy and light, dark and bright. Songs rush into each other. Before you know it, the album has played through and it's time to start it again.
Pollard's got a perfect rock voice. There's John Lennon and Bowie and the early Who's Roger Daltrey in his voice, echoes of those rockers he dug as a kid. But just echoes, faint reverberations. He's an expressive singer, so expressive that despite the obtuse language, the mere way he sings his words says plenty to me.
Universal Truths and Cycles is the group's most ambitious album yet, and not just because GBV guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley, bassist Tim Tobias, new drummer Kevin March (who joined after the album was complete) and Pollard co-produced it. From the gorgeous album art (with a cardboard cover; no jewel box) that makes this feel like some strange ancient book you might come across in the back of a mystic-artifacts shop, to those poetic lyrics ("Why do you dream/ Of strange men in aeroplanes/ And parachutes torn/ By wings of thorn?"), to the beautifully structured and crafted songs, this album is one of those rarities. It delivers in so many ways, conveying in every song, from title to lyrics to the fantastic guitars and perfect dynamics, the deep mystery that is life.
Guided by Voices stand outside trends. The Limp Bizkits and Systems of a Down, Eminems and Vanilla Ices come and go. Meanwhile, GBV keep delivering albums, year after year. They tour to fanatical fans who know the words to every song. They are the soul of rock. If they are lucky, they will at some point get on the radio, and millions will thrill to their miraculous music. And if not, they will continue to communicate their abstract expressionism to the faithful.