Guided By Voices are one of those bands that people can’t seem to agree on. Sure, most people (aside from diehard 1980s hair metal enthusiasts, presumably) concede that they’re good. But fans and snobby critics insist (paradoxically) that the Ohio group never quite reached the levels of success and recognition for which they were truly destined. It’s like how people still insist on calling Pixies an “indie rock,” “alternative” or, even more egregiously, “underground” band when they’ve been selling out arenas for $100 a seat for the past decade.
But I mean, here we are talking about GBV almost three decades after their full-length debut. Surely that’s evidence that they’ve gained some traction in the mainstream world, right? Their rapid fire series of breakups and reunions since 2004 certainly seemed to reignite a fair bit of interest in the festival sphere. Granted, everyone remembers the grainy lo-fi of Bee Thousand most fondly, but, again, that was one album from, like, thirty years ago.
All these strawmen might have gotten you twisted, because none of this is to say that the best work GBV ever did was during their time as bunkmates with The Flaming Lips at alterna-psych bootcamp back in the late ‘80s. They’ve been everywhere from punk to post-punk to delicate art rock to blues, from the symphonic to vaguely electronic, and lead singer/songwriter Robert Pollard has taken full advantage of this murky classification with dozens of genre-hopping solo outings, the latest of which is Of Course You Are.
When it comes to style, Pollard allows you to pick your poison; the album is something of a grab bag. There are R.E.M. leanings in the arpeggiated guitar, and the thoughtful, funny lyrics that influenced so many of Pollard’s successors, but those are about the only stylistic threads that run throughout. His decades-long stepping out from behind the curtain of lo-fi has afforded Pollard a wide variety of textural opportunities on his most recent records, and he seems to be on a quest to touch all of them.
“Promo Brunette” rocks a swaggering, sneering twang while the buzzsawing “Collision Daycare” sounds like The Dickies through a Pro Tools filter. There’s a distinctly Dinosaur Jr. buzzing lurch to “My Daughter Yes She Knows,” but perhaps it’s a miss to attribute the entirety of that pre-grunge grunge style to a single band when Pollard’s group were moping right alongside them back in 1990. The Generation X sampler continues with the bouncy Britpop of “Little Pigs.” Despite the track’s many vocal stretches, Pollard’s voice doesn’t show any signs of having weakened over the years, unlike some of our other heroes of days gone by. He really puts his pipes to the test on “I Can Illustrate,” a power pop cut reminiscent of Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ better days with scratchy guitar and maybe a Casio tone or two thrown in. It’s got some of that catchy but also smug, dry, just plain meanness that made Elvis’ persona feel dangerous yet relatably petulant (“I can illustrate everything about you”).
“Come And Listen” is a sudden and complete palette swap, a somber ballad complete with a string quartet, but it doesn’t fell particularly out of place amidst the clamor. Nor does “Losing It,” a track which rests in the coveted sweet spot between David Bowie’s glam and hazy psychedelia. Not to be left out, electronica shows up to the party that is Of Course You Are, as well. Well, it’s not really electronica. “Contemporary Man (He Is Our Age)” features the record’s first prominent synth squeal, but the song’s still got a bit of bluesy lilt to it, and too much non-electric percussion to really qualify. It’s not nearly stiff or British enough enough to stand next to Depeche Mode or New Order, but it provides a nice change of scenery for a moment.
Pollard’s never been a guy for long-winded flights of fancy. The tight, short songs of Of Course You Are are here and gone in a hip flash, and you’d do well to put an ear to the sky as they whiz by you.