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CMJ - May/June 2001
By Cheryl Botchick
At age 43, Bob Pollard is still an adolescent - and not without cost. But it's made for the best Guided By Voices album ever.
It's Valentine's Day in New York City and there's plenty of love in the air at the Bowery Ballroom. But it's not the kind of love normally associated with Cupid's holiday. It's that special kind of love that can only exist between an indie-rock king and his minions. There's a warm fuzz electrifying the hovering cloud of smoke and sweat as Bob Pollard leads Guided By Voices through all the bands "hits" dating back a decade, puncturing accents with exuberant high-kicks and vigorous mic twirls. And the crowd of disciples hollers along with the words to every song like it's a reunion show of a long-lost cult band. This, however, is what a Guided By Voices gig is like almost any night of the week.
Like any member of a royal family, the Midwestern hooligan that fronts this band holds court before the show at the club bar. He may be middle-aged, but he still relishes long swigs from his bottle of beer and chews the fat with fans. Asked about his age, he retorts: "I'm 43! You think I might wanna grow up one of these days?" He pauses for effect. "No!" Be rattles off band names he thought up the other night as he sat drunk in the tour van (Radio Shack O'Neill, Jesus And The Beatles. Marshmallow Linebacker, Bumblebee Contract, to name just a few), and reminisces about the lo-fi days-"We wanted to make records that sounded like Beatles bootlegs."
The 13th Guided By Voices full-length, Isolation Drills (TVT) is no kids' rec-room project. In fact, coming from a band that's let its biggest shots at mainstream stardom, pass it by, it's surprisingly their most cohesive and accessible offering to date. But the GBV on this album isn't all fraternal boozing and carefree rocking. In fact, even the first listen to Isolation Drills will leave you with a sense of solitude and loss. "Twilight Campfighter" starts by sketching the struggle- to find one's way-amidst confusion; "The Brides Have Hit Glass" confesses a fear of impermanence ("You know it just won't last/ To be on top of your own world/ With no guard rails to cling to/ You fall so very fast"); and the stark "How's My Drinking?" (the title itself is telling) stubbornly laments, "I don't care about being sober/But I sure get around... And leave me die/With you/ I won't change."
Isolation Drills certainly isn't about the zoo pies and cut-out witches of yesteryear. Coming from someone so admittedly immature, the lyrics are startlingly serious and forthcoming about real-life sorrow. Would Pollard agree? "Um, well..." he stammers, hedging a bit. "I wanna talk about what it's really about, but I can't. People read things, you. know and they might have their feelings hurt..." He only offers: "It's just about us being separated. About (the band) being gone all the time. Which doesn't make for a healthy, um... It's just when you go back, no one knows who the fuck you are. We didn't used to tour as much. We tour a lot more now."
A source close to the band acknowledges that the last year of Pollard's life has been a difficult one, with the end of his marriage taking its toll on the clown prince of the underground. The former schoolteacher's hair gets a touch grayer with every record, and his face has rounded considerably under the wrinkles.
Pollard may not want to dish the gory details, but even Isolation Drills' sparse song titles carry a certain solitude. "I wanted to change 'em and make the titles kind of wilder, but I thought, 'No, that's not what it is. It's not what they are," he figures. And he offers a lesson on the album's title that's a deeper look into his soul than he's ever allowed before: "It's about isolation. drills. The things that you do that cause isolation. It's a vicious cycle. The things that you've done that cause you to feel isolated and separated and then how we remedied that was by drinking and doing it more-doing those things more... But 'isolation drills' is also, like, examining things at a closer perspective. Looking at your life."
Regardless of (or perhaps even in spite of) these wounded, introspective themes, Isolation Drills is nonetheless Pollard's most anthemic klatch of melodies yet, making it an astounding exercise in extremes. As bass player Tim Tobias notes, "There's a line in. The Brides Have Hit Glass' that says, 'There's a better road ahead of me, but I just don't know how to make it there.' And that, to me, is a very hopeful statement. I appreciate that line a lot."
Pollard focuses on another particular lyric: "The last line of the first song on the album ("Fait Touching") goes, 'And now at last the song you sing will have meaning.' It's maybe some kind of prophetic line. It does have meaning, but I still don't think that it's totally straightforward. It's not an obvious record, but you can tell it's a more personal record. It's more about people relationships. I mean, I used to make fun of people who did that. I don't wanna hear about how you fuckin' miss your baby and you're coming home soonl I don't wanna hear that shit!" He unleashes a raspy belly laugh to relieve the tension.
Onstage later that night, the band cranks out a goosebump-inducing cover of the Who's "Baba O'Riley." And though the audience of postal blowfish (as crazed GBV fans call themselves these days) goes nuts simply hearing their hero deliver such a classic cut, Pete Townshend's lyrics seem rife with meaning: "Out here in the fields/ I fight for my meals/I get my back into my living/I don't need to fight! To prove I'm right! I don't need to be forgiven." Perhaps he's creeping toward adulthood more than he realizes, but he still raises a ruckus every time he hits the stage. "Don't cry/ Don't raise your eye/It's only teenage wasteland."