erasing clouds

Guided By Voices' fantastic new album, Isolation Drills

reviewed by Dave heaton

The basic story of Guided By Voices--the one about the 4th grade teacher with rock-star ambitions who records "lo-fi" tracks in his basement and eventually rises to semi-stardom and attracts a horde of rabid fans--has been told several million times by now. But the part of the story that's always in danger of being overlooked is the why behind the leagues of obsessed GBV fans; what is it that makes GBV attract such crazed fans? Robert Pollard's ability to write a rock anthem in a quick second is well-documented, but what's often missed is the heart beneath his songs, the emotional connection that so many music fans feel with these songs. Sure, GBV's songs have catchy melodies and a quizzical air, and they rock, but there's something more, a strain of pure feeling that strikes a complete chord with listeners, the way the most lasting songs always do.

The "classic" status accorded to GBV's 1994 album Bee Thousand has a lot to do with the pop-flavored, Who-ish arena rock, the cut-up editing and the fantasy-soaked lyrics, but it's also in the sensitive layer underneath, the side that can grab the hearts of music fans and make them feel like something's changed, like they're experiencing something that means something. You can hear it in the triumphant "We're finally here…" part of "Echos Myron," in the heartfelt "I love you I must confess" in "Peephole," in the building climax of "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory." The last example's an especially interesting case, because the emotional impact isn't tied to any direct message in the lyrics--I couldn't begin to explain them and I've heard the song hundreds of times, at least.

For me, the main reason Pollard is such a gifted songwriter, and one of the key reasons I can get so obsessed with GBV, lies with this fact: a GBV song can connect to your emotional side (that amorphous human element commonly associated with "the heart"), delivering feelings that completely overwhelm you, through absolutely oblique lyrics. Robert Pollard's lyrics are abstract poems, filled with odd images and metaphors, along with the occasional straightforward statement, but he knows how to combine them with music in such a way that they nearly make you cry, without you ever understanding why you're getting so affected. There's GBV songs that absolutely bowl me over, but when I read the lyrics aloud they sound surreal and almost nonsensical, not like a tearjerking message of any sort.

The second major story of Guided By Voices is the more recent one, the story of Bob Pollard trying to get his music to the masses by making it sound crisper, bigger, fuller. A lot of hubbub came with 1999's Ric Ocasek-produced Do the Collapse, mainly because it had the slickest production of any GBV release, yet the true shift in GBV's sound came three years earlier, with 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Though earlier releases like Sandbox and Propeller are proof that GBV was always going for a big, bombastic rock sound, Under the Bushes… was GBV's first big push in that direction after achieving a degree of success. While Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are filled with power-pop tunes and anthemic rockers, for Under the Bushes the songs were further fleshed out, and sounded more like they could be played on the radio. From then on, through two GBV albums (Mag Earwhig and Do the Collapse), three Robert Pollard "solo" albums and a handful of other releases, it was clear that Pollard was longing to take his songs in a bigger-sounding direction while retaining the basic elements of a GBV song.

Now, in the year 2001, Guided By Voices has released an album that encapsulates everything Robert Pollard's been trying to do musically since 1996, while maintaining a more consistent emotional tenor than he's done in years. Isolation Drills is a big, beautiful ROCK album, but one which pulls at your heartstrings with nearly every note played and every word uttered. And like with GBV's music in general, that connection is because of the singing, the musical atmosphere, the timing of the notes, the purposeful vagueness of the lyrics--it's in everything.

The 16 tracks on Isolation Drills musically have touches of everything GBV's been doing lately--there's melody-driven pop/rock a la Under the Bushes ("Chasing Heather Crazy," "Twilight Campfighter"), the harder edge of the GBV/Cobra Verde collaboration ("The Enemy," "Skills Like This"), and graceful string arrangements, a skill that the band picked up from Ric Ocasek ("Privately," "Unspirited"). And there's so much more. There's a bratty, dirty-rocker ("Want One?"), a wistful, eccentric acoustic track ("Frostman"), an upscale remake of a catchy pop song previously confined to an EP ("Fair Touching"), a catchier-than-ever sing-along anthem ("Glad Girls") and loads of gorgeous, soaring rock ballads. Plus, to put it in the simplest terms, every song is good. Even the "growers" don't take that long to grow on you. Isolation Drills has a self-assured completeness about it that even the best of the recent GBV albums didn't have.

From the first track, "Fair Touching," where Pollard sings, "And perhaps at last the song you sing will have meaning," his lyrics convey a sense of sadness, a longing to find a truth that will help life make more sense. This theme is one of the lines that makes the album so cohesive, such an album. The songs are set against a backdrop of universal longing, where everyone feels like things are falling apart and is searching for that one thing that will keep everything together. Songs detail separation, despair, and the crutches used to cover them up (mainly alcohol), but do so in an imaginative, never straightforward way. Still, even in a seemingly innocuous, fanciful rocker like "Want One?" a line emerges to bring out the seriousness: "A ticket to sugar pie, yeah I want one/A lesson before you die/Hey gimme one." On every song, answers are sought…though this theme comes mostly as a mood, not a direct message. It comes in lines here and there, but also in an overall atmosphere created by Pollard's still enigmatic lyrics. "Fair Touching" has the line quoted above, but it also has an odd chorus open to listener interpretation: "The queen's prize awaits/She might rub her legs." In the songwriting world of Robert Pollard, nothing is simple, little is communicated directly, yet the feeling always shines through. This feeling comes through just as strongly through the music on Isolation Drills. GBV's current lineup is perhaps the tightest, most musically proficient yet, and this albums shows off their talent well. Each note played adds to the album's feel and mood, from the hard-edged playing on "Skills Like This" to the truly stunning interplay between lush strings and the rock instruments on the musically uplifting final track, "Privately." That song comes with it a feeling of triumph that adds a strong sense of hope to the album's dour theme. Here, and throughout Isolation Drills the exuberance of the music and Pollard's dynamic singing give the sense that what is being sought can be found, that all is not hopeless.

Several times over the last few years, I've read interviews where Pollard indicates that his next album will be like Bee Thousand. I always took that on its surface, to mean that the next album would be more melodic and sparse, less big and less hard-rock-ish. But now I'm thinking I should have taken it another way--Isolation Drills musically is not another Bee Thousand, but as far as making a cohesive creation that grabs hold of your emotions, it's mighty close. There's also a feeling in the air about GBV that, if not the same as in the Bee Thousand era, is just as positive; this album carries with it a sense that the band is capable of anything, and that they're not about to give up hope in their struggle to continue the development of the rock form.

Issue 5, April 2001 | next article

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