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Guided By Voices
Universal Truths and Cycles
Robert Pollard’s release from the TVT label, with whom he had irreconcilable differences, and return to his old Matador home, is something he desired as a strong-willed, independent artist. But is it an improvement artistically? If one considers his tenure with TVT as his attempt to go for a bigger audience than the 100,000 or so he usually sells—by honing and editing his material for a bigger label into the best it could be, then working with a strong producer to make it sound deeper—then his return to a more organic, less arduous approach could feel like a step back, a white flag waved, a surrender from the truly transcendent GBV we saw last time on the band’s most developed LP, the climacteric Isolation Drills. (Note, though, that the results of that path were never guaranteed—as Ric Ocasek’s overproduction of GBV’s previous TVT LP, Do the Collapse, proved!)
That said, if the new Universal Truths is slightly more fundamental sonically, it’s just the same highly-motivated work of a writing genius. It is an immense relief to find that Pollard is adhering to far more rigorous standards of quality control than he ever did in the mid-90s. At the same time, taking control in the studio again has not meant a return to that era’s then-fresh, now dated lo-fi sonic values. So if GBV does not seek Isolation Drills’ disquieting ambiance and confessional lyrics (a rare glimpse provided into Pollard’s then-collapsing marriage and his new life as a post-family-man single, simultaneously exciting and sad), it’s still another flat-out fantastic, brisk, and unbelievably hooky rock ’n’ roll LP!
Someday Pollard really will run out of great songs; of new ideas; of the kind of tunes others spend whole lifetimes trying to write just once—yeah, when he’s dead. Once again, the lack of unfinished fragments or filler makes Universal Truths a fabulous pleasure. As soon as one monster hook subsided, another surfaces, like your coffee cup being filled 19 times by the same zealous waitress. It can be the ringing chords, streamlined vocal, and crash of the drums of “Storm Vibrations” and “Eureka Signs”; or the soaring, ’60s pop confection of The Hollies-like “Cheyenne” complete with chiming xylophone bells; or the Wire-esque stutter-chords of “Car Language” and the 6/8-time rapid waltz, “Back to the Lake”; or the solitude of the acoustic-sway in “Factory of Raw Essentials,” “The Ids Are Alright,” or cold-water-fresh vignette, “Zap”; or the surprising string-quartet that pops in, Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”-style, throughout “Pretty Bombs”; or the classic GBV wild, careening, multi-suite “Christian Animation Torch Carriers,” which includes Doug Gillard’s tangled, string-bending guitar leads. With all of Pollard’s twists and turns, you never know what’s coming, but it’s all so cool, so catchy, and most of all, it’s more exuberant than a class full of the fourth graders Pollard once taught, out on recess.
Pollard is still teaching. You’d do well to take every course he gives.