Universal Truths and Cycles: An Appreciation of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices

Universal Truths and Cycles: An Appreciation of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices

By Daniel de Visé

Aug. 17, 2022

BMI, the music-publishing giant, names Robert E. Pollard Jr. as author of 2,485 songs, an alphabetic list that begins with "1 Years Old" and ends with "ZX35 Pow." AllMusic lists 120 albums, singles, and EPs Pollard has released with Guided By Voices, and twenty-seven albums associated with his own name. And that's not all of them.

For record collectors, the problem with Pollard isn't the sheer quantity of songs and albums so much as their uniformly high quality. When Guided By Voices played the 9:30 Club in Washington in October 2010, on one of their many reunion tours, Pollard sang forty songs, all of them good. And forty songs, for Pollard, is not a particularly long set.

If you're reading this and you don't own any Robert Pollard albums, you are missing out on one of the great songwriters of the indie-rock era. If you purchase all six of the records I will shortly recommend, you'll own maybe half of his top-drawer songs. It's a start.

Robert Pollard was born in 1957 in Dayton, Ohio. His formative years spanned the era from Sgt. Pepper to The Clash.

"In junior high, I listened to AM radio," he told AllMusic in an interview. "All the hits. Also, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who, but I was really into bubblegum. Ohio Express, Herman's Hermits, 1910 Fruitgum Company, Motown. I didn't understand Sgt. Pepper at all."

Pollard started singing in real bands in college but released no proper album until 1987, the year he turned thirty. He describes his first several LPs as "vanity" recordings, in the sense that not many people bought them.

"We did six of them before we were signed to Scat Records out of Cleveland," Pollard recalled. "We never tried to sell ourselves. We never sent a record out for review. I had no confidence whatsoever that anyone could actually care. We did it purely to entertain ourselves. I didn't think I was a very good songwriter. Adequate, but nothing worth promoting."

The sixth LP, a home-recorded, lo-fi gem titled Vampire on Titus, caught the industry's ear. The seventh, Bee Thousand, made the top 10 on Robert Christgau's influential annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. Bee Thousand made Pollard an indie rock star at thirty-six, freeing him to quit his schoolteacher job.

Pollard was a late bloomer. Consider: Paul Weller, a fellow Who fan, born a year after Pollard, scored his first hit with the Jam in 1977, at eighteen. By the time Weller turned twenty-five, the Jam had broken up.

Guided By Voices released albums about once a year until 2004, when Pollard broke up the band. He spent several years dabbling in solo works and side projects before reforming GBV in 2010. The band has since released at least twenty more albums.

Here is a selective guide to a half-dozen of the best Robert Pollard albums: Four regular studio releases and two compilations, spanning nearly two decades.

Bee Thousand, 1994. Bee Thousand

In hindsight, this lo-fi masterpiece may be the best rock ‘n roll album of 1994. With Bee Thousand, Pollard unleashed an aural assault of Nuggets garage-pop gems. Signing with a real label had launched him on a songwriting tear. The band later released a three-album "Director's Cut" of songs from these sessions, some of which had already popped up on a 1995 box set as King Shit & the Golden Boys. It was a fertile time.

"I think the sudden attention certainly didn't hurt the surge in creativity," Pollard recalled. "It also coincided with our discovery of the four-track recorder and how much more music we could pump out with it." Pollard's deliberate retreat from low-rent recording studios into zero-rent home recording looms large in his legend.

"We were no longer at the mercy of sterile ‘professional' studios," he said. "We started getting into the notion of making ‘unprofessional' mistakes, noise, nonsense… but still good songs. Allowing the listener to come into our basements in Dayton, Ohio. I think that was the mystique."

A few of the longer cuts – "longer," in this context, meaning ninety seconds or more – endure as indie-pop classics, including "Gold Star for Robot Boy," "I Am a Scientist," "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" and the regrettably named "Tractor Rape Chain." But the full album plays like a greatest hits. It is that good.

Alien Lanes, 1995. Alien Lanes

In case anyone thought Pollard's twenty-song masterpiece might be a fluke, he followed it with a twenty-eight-song masterpiece. Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand vie for consideration as best GBV album. The strongest cuts on Alien Lanes, including "Game of Pricks," "My Valuable Hunting Knife" and the show-starter "A Salty Salute," rank among Pollard's best, but there's not a bad cut on the record.

Together, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes delivered a master class in lo-fi, showing what a master songwriter could accomplish in his basement with a four-track recorder and a good ear. Everything about the songs, from their Minutemen length to their purposefully homespun sound, challenged music-industry norms about how rock ‘n roll music should be made. Alien Lanes marked further progress up the food chain for GBV, released by Matador Records and seeding the band's first television appearance on The Jon Stewart Show.

Isolation Drills, 2001. Isolation Drills

Most Pollard fans regard the GBV albums released between Bee Thousand and the band's 2004 breakup as his best work. The sprawling 1996 release Under the Bushes Under the Stars ranks not far behind Alien Lanes in songcraft. With the excellent Mag Earwhig! in 1997, Pollard dismissed his band and found his own Crazy Horse, colonizing a Cleveland outfit called Cobra Verde. He collaborated with producer Ric Ocasek on the 1999 release Do the Collapse, a lesser GBV entry only in relative terms: It's a very good record.

When I asked Pollard to recommend six albums for new listeners, he put Isolation Drills at the top of his list. Released in 2001, Isolation Drills probably holds together as an album better than anything else in the GBV catalog. It's one of the great breakup records, recorded as Pollard's marriage was crumbling. The album resonates with raw power and hurt. "You build your fires into an open wound," he sings in "Twilight Campfighter." In "The Brides Have Hit Glass," he sings that "there's a better road ahead of me/I just don't know how to make it there."

At least half of the sixteen songs on Isolation Drills are deathless Pollard classics. At crucial moments, Pollard the lyricist abandons the garage-psych-absurdist opacity of his previous recordings and grabs his listeners by the throat, exorcising universal themes of loss and anger and regret, with music as plainly accessible as anything on Rumours.

"Most people get it," Pollard said simply.

Earthquake Glue, 2003. Earthquake Glue

Near the end of the classic GBV run, Pollard was spinning off two or three near-perfect power-pop songs per album. You have to admire the sheer songcraft of "My Kind of Soldier," "The Main Street Wizards" and "The Best of Jill Hives," two- and three-minute gems of the verse-chorus-verse form from Earthquake Glue.

Is Earthquake Glue one of the four best GBV albums? Who knows? Mag Earwhig! Has more energy and lots of great songs. Under the Bushes would have capped the career of almost any other band. Pollard himself argues for Universal Truths and Cycles, from 2002. You can't really go wrong with any of them.

The Best of Guided by Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, 2003. Human Amusements at Hourly Rates

This 32-song set delivers a splendid summation of the band's decade-long run as indie-rock gods. A dedicated fan could easily find 32 other songs from the same era that sound nearly as good, but this collection covers most of the peaks, from "A Salty Salute" to "Game of Pricks" to "The Official Ironman Rally Song" to "Teenage FBI."

In theory, you could buy this disc and the three records listed above and be done with it. Let's be honest, though: Once you've played Human Amusements three or four times, you'll more likely feel your GBV journey has only begun.

Out of the Universe by Sundown: The Greatest Hits of Boston Spaceships, 2012. Boston Spaceships

Pollard had released several solo albums and side projects by the time he disbanded GBV in 2004. Some of them are very good: My personal favorite is probably Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, from 1999, a collaboration with Doug Gillard, the GBV guitarist.

The quick and lazy Pollard putdown is that he never knew a good song from a bad one, and that he put absolutely everything out on disc. Critics use that line to dismiss (or at least to dis) Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand. The quip is neither fair nor accurate: Pollard clearly chose every forty-second snippet on those releases with great care.

"I used to get accused of throwing away better songs in the days when not too many people cared, and I'll admit I was pretty unfocused," Pollard said. "These days, I'm more dialed in to what's a ‘keeper' and what's a throwaway."

Pollard does tend to save his best songs for the core band releases: Do the Collapse, whatever its flaws, is a better album than Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department.

No surprise, then, that some of the best Robert Pollard material from the years after the great GBV breakup wound up on the Boston Spaceships albums, his full-band project from 2008 to 2011. Boston Spaceships released five solid albums. I don't know if any ranks with the better GBV releases in front-to-back depth. But the greatest-hits set holds its own alongside the classics on a Pollard playlist.

Boston Spaceships formed in the summer after Pollard's fiftieth birthday, an age well past the freshness dates of most pop songsters. The mere fact that Pollard could still write songs that approached the very high bar of his early stuff put him in rarified air: Precious few rock ‘n rollers are still challenging listeners in their fifth and sixth decades.

Pollard turns sixty-five in October. His re-formed Guided By Voices has reached as high as 83 on the Metacritic rating scale (with Crystal Nuns Cathedral). Each of the band's last six long-players has earned a four-star rating from AllMusic.

"You know, I've never understood how someone who was great suddenly no longer has it," Pollard said. "And you're right, it happens to almost everyone. Mostly I just think it's boredom and complacency. It blows my mind, though, how people like Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger can't, or don't even want to, write ‘She's Leaving Home' or ‘Ruby Tuesday' anymore."

Bonus list: Robert Pollard's top six Robert Pollard albums for the neophyte.

1. Isolation Drills. "Very friendly to the ear of most music fans. Most people get it."
2. Bee Thousand. "It's the only one where writers consistently use the word ‘masterpiece.'"
3. From a Compound Eye, 2006. "My first solo album. I really thought something would happen with it. Like Peter Gabriel's breakaway from Genesis."
4. Universal Truths and Cycles. "It has everything when it comes to my influences and the diversity of my songwriting styles."
5. Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, 2022. "A big departure in a more progressive direction."
6. "Our next album, La La Land, out in January."

Daniel de Visé is a frequent AllMusic contributor and author of King of the Blues: The Rise and Reign of B.B. King.