Front man Robert Pollard (GBV is essentially a solo vehicle) has the ability to write tremendously moving songs, providing those songs don't spend too much time in the higher parts of the listeners' brain. GBV's stream-of-consciousness lyrics, wee songs (most are 90 seconds or less), tinny production, generously catchy melodies, and outsider geezer image (many members are in their 40s) all appeal to some very basic urge, and surely not the sophisticated cranial bits used for reading James Joyce, listening to jazz, or other smarty-pants activities. When Pollard sings in his sincerest faux-British trill, "I want to start a new life, with my valuable hunting knife" (from 1995's Alien Lanes), and surrounds the song with an effortlessly catchy melody, you can inexplicably find yourself throwing that rock and roll hand signal, sprinting around the house in your underwear, or (God forbid) playing air-guitar. The pleasure of Guided by Voices is an auto-nervous response, like the jerk reflex when touching a hot stove or checking your pinkie after a good ear-cleaning.
With their new release, Do the Collapse, GBV aims to expand its devoted cult following (largely aging white guys with science degrees) with "big, room-filling, overdriven-guitar power rock." Originally recorded for (and then dropped by) Capitol Records, Pollard enlisted "super producer"/married-to-a-supermodel/tall guy Ric Ocasek (Cars, Weezer, Bad Brains). Ocasek was certainly able to put a radio-ready sheen on Pollard's lo-fi nuggets, but the problem is this new luster compels one to analyze the music's scuffs and imperfections. The magic of Pollard's songwriting is its ability to jump straight from his id into yours. Lines from the new CD such as "I am a born-again, boot-stomping witch hunter. Are we there yet?" and "The Quakers' seal of approval, more movies, less Trivial Pursuit" are amusing, but aren't quite as appealing as when they were offhandedly babbled by your beer-soaked favorite uncle at the family picnic. Pollard once claimed that he could "go in to take a shit and come out with five songs, and three would be good." But six weeks of polishing in a big NYC studio make Pollard's quirky lyrics seem ill-conceived. Oft-repeated enigmatic phrases (disguised as choruses) such as "strumpet eye," "liquid Indian," and "optical hopscotch," recorded muffle- and static-free, seem, well, kind of dumb.
To give Pollard (and Ocasek) credit, the CD still hits the mark on many songs. Pollard is a natural songsmith, and even Ocasek's addition of strings (surely the sign of any "mature" rock band), new wave synths, and transparent production values can't hide viscerally catchy tunes. The irresistible single "Teenage FBI" with its seesawing synths and pleading "Someone tell me why I do the things I don't want to do" chorus could be just the commercial alternative radio hit that Pollard has long desired. The crisp power pop of "Mushroom Art" and the gorgeous, intricate guitar lines in "Wrecking Now" sound like classic GBV; their appeal is pure.
GBV's live show, with its parade of band members (Pollard being the only constant, with rotating members now numbering around 50), is an alternatingly depressing/exhilarating mess. Of course it all revolves around besotted creepy guy Pollard. If you are a GBV fan and haven't seen them live, you will surely be amazed at how such a strange lout can make such beautiful sounds. Pollard, champion of the virtues of rock and roll, sincerely believes in the redeeming power of rock music. He always seems to be playing each show like he's spreading an important message and there isn't much time left. He ingests beer as if it were slow poison (he was up to 14 at the last concert I saw, with no visible effect), and violently sucks down cigarettes to hasten his own demise. He strides around the stage like a paunchy rock god, punctuating the seriousness of his message with karate kicks and swinging microphones. What is his message? I don't know. I don't think he knows. He is a man who puts his subconscious on the table for all to see and hear. Don't try to understand him.