erasing clouds

Guided by Voices Is Breaking Up...But What Does That Mean, Exactly?

by dave heaton

This week Robert Pollard announced that, after nearly 20 years of existing in some form, and a little over 10 years existing as a touring band, Guided by Voices is calling it quits. There will be one more album (Half Smiles of the Decomposed, due in August) and a final tour, and that'll be it for Guided by Voices. No more high kicks, no more Buds thrown from the stage, no more lineup changes, no more arguments among the diehards about whether the new lineup was as good as the "classic" lineup.

How do you react when one of your favorite bands of all times announces that they're breaking up? Sadness is appropriate, or a sort of wistful nostalgia for the good times of the past, I suppose. But things are a bit more complicated with Guided by Voices…

Pollard giving up on music altogether would be earth-shattering, but this definitely isn't that. The break-up announcement made it clear that he's going to continue as a solo artist, recording and possibly touring, under his own name. So in that case what does it mean that Guided by Voices is over, really? Guided by Voices was never a true band anyway. GBV consisted of Bob Pollard and whoever he wanted to play with at any particular time. That fact doesn't devalue the importance of the various GBV members from over the years; Tobin Sprout had some of his own songs on GBV albums, Doug Gillard had some creative input here and there, and many of the other members put distinct marks on GBV albums and, especially, on their live shows. But the myth of GBV as a band was exploded long ago, after the first touring lineup was replaced by another one, which was soon replaced by another one, and so on.

Given how many different names Pollard has recorded under (a partial recap: Robert Pollard, Robert Pollard and the Soft Rock Renegades, Nightwalker, The Freedom Cruise, Circus Devils, Howling Wolf Orchestra, Airport 5, Go Back Snowball, Lexo and the Leapers, Lifeguards), the name 'Guided by Voices' has come to mean 'the Robert Pollard releases that most people will think of as the most legitimate'. In concert, Guided by Voices is likely to play songs from any of Pollard's releases, so the demarcation among band names clearly doesn't cross over into the realm of live shows. In other words, it's easy to imagine this scenario: in a year, Pollard puts out an album under his own name that's as widely distributed and heard as GBV's recent albums were, and then decides to tour. He calls up many of the same people who were 'Guided by Voices' and they tour as 'Robert Pollard and band'. They play Pollard's new songs and they play Guided By Voices songs. The difference is minimal.

What I'm getting at is this: only time will tell whether this announcement really means anything in terms of the music, or if it's just an example of Pollard indulging in his hobby of playing around with band names. It'd be a mistake to make too much of it now. In the announcement Pollard was quoted as saying, "there's a sense of maturity, and even integrity, I think, in continuing as one's own self." That makes me think that he's reached a point in his career where he likes the idea of having his own name listed on the album cover, that right now he just likes the sound of a Robert Pollard album versus a Guided by Voices album.

But then again, maybe the breakup is about more than just names. For years Pollard has reserved his most adventurous music for the non-Guided by Voices releases. He's used these smaller, more fan-directed albums to experiment and play around (as with Circus Devils' Halloween-rock or the more diverse sounds present on the Airport 5 and Go Back Snowball albums), or to create rawer rock and roll albums without paying any attention to what might be a hit. Albums like Waved Out, Kid Marine, Speak Kindly of Your Local Volunteer Fire Department, Choreographed Man of War, Motel of Fools, and Fiction Man have a purity to them that is sometimes obscured on the later GBV albums, where Pollard was obviously more concerned with what the next 'Guided by Voices' album should sound like, and at times with how successful it would be. Don't get me wrong, I love even the most blatant GBV attempts at radio airplay ("Hold on Hope", for example), and I think that some of GBV's recent albums (Isolation Drills and most of Earthquake Glue) are up there among the best moments of Pollard's career. But the non-GBV releases are often more consistent, more unique, or more ambitious than the GBV albums. They're more likely to be surprising, or exciting even, and they often slip by without enough attention. Switching from the name Guided by Voices to his own name might give Bob Pollard more creative freedom, or more confidence in some of his less commercial endeavors. If that's the case, then maybe I should be celebrating the breakup of my favorite band. Maybe this is a truly exciting time, not something to be sad about.

Note: The fuzzy concert photo above was taken by the author some years ago...


Issue 22, April 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds