Pressing Concerns: Guided by Voices, ‘Earth Man Blues’

Release date: April 30th
Record label: GBV, Inc.
Genre: Power pop, post-punk
Formats: Vinyl, CD, digital
Pull track: How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?

When Guided by Voices announced a new album made up of “rejected songs” at the beginning of this year, I thought it was destined to go down as a minor release in their heady catalog, with that description handing an indie rock world drowning in Robert Pollard-led records an excuse to let one slip by and take a breath. For whatever reason, however, Earth Man Blues has been a relative hit, earning the “best album in decades” moniker from Rolling Stone and even inspiring Pitchfork to begrudgingly give it a 6.8 just like we’re all back in 2012. As someone who had two Guided by Voices records on my 2020 year-end list and would’ve put the third one on there had it not come out in mid-December, I was happy for them to be getting the press, albeit with a healthy degree of skepticism regarding the fanfare. Is Earth Man Blues truly the best of the band’s “new lineup” (which has put out ten albums in the half-decade since its formation) or is the music world just playing catch-up to Pollard and company’s breakneck pace, trying to make up for not properly appreciating the charms of the likes of Surrender Your Poppy Field and Styles We Paid For? Well, I don’t know, but I’d rather talk about the music itself than the reaction to it, so…

Pollard has presented Earth Man Blues as a cohesive rock opera of sorts, which would seem to contradict the “collage of rejected songs” description, but given that Pollard values the narrative power of sequencing and has been known to re-write lyrics to older songs, it’s not impossible. I won’t pretend to say I’ve been able to pick a throughline—the pieces of evidence in favor of Earth Man Blues as rock opera are the many illusions to childhood and schooling (including the reference to Pollard’s childhood elementary school on the record’s cover) and that the band sounds a lot like The Who, but they aren’t overly convincing, because both of these happen on all the “normal” Guided by Voices albums, too. Still, there are moments like the back-to-back 70-second sugar rush of “Margaret Middle School” and one of the band’s best ever Tommy moments in “I Bet Hippy” where Pollard is clearly reaching for an overarching story, and it works as a catalyst for an exciting run of songs if nothing else.

The album has a looseness to it that reminds me of my favorite of the recent Guided by Voices albums, August by Cake, but while that record’s grab-bag quality was a matter of circumstance (the transitioning of GBV from a Pollard solo endeavor to a full-band affair once again, plus the other members contributing songwriting), Earth Man Blues earns its dexterity by being the product of a band that’s only grown more comfortable and in tune with each other. They don’t need to stretch every Pollard idea into a three-minute plodder—opener “Made Man” and the aforementioned “Margaret Middle School” make their points and sink their hooks in quickly and effectively. This isn’t a short song “gimmick” album like Warp and Woof, however—the nearly six-minute “Lights Out in Memphis (Egypt)” stops and starts through one of the band’s longest runtimes ever, and feels like another step forward for the group.

Hidden near the end of Earth Man Blues, the half-demo quality of the chill-inducing “How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?”, captures the magic of spare poetic Pollard like “Learning to Hunt” and “Kiss Only the Important Ones” have in the past, but it’s updated musically with tasteful flourishes from the band. Similarly digging through Pollard’s past is “Sunshine Girl Hello”, which starts with a cut-and-pasted intro that sounds like someone scanning through stations on Alien Lanes, but the strutting power pop gem hidden between the bouts of electromagnetic interference sounds ripped not from that era of Guided by Voices but from Pollard’s late 2000s band, Boston Spaceships. One mark of this lineup’s records has been left-field album closers, and Earth Man Blues doesn’t disappoint with “Child’s Play”. The song starts off as a fairly mid-tempo Isolation Drills GBV-era rocker before guitarist Doug Gillard wrests control of the song’s entire second half to lay down a blistering solo, its prominence a rarity despite the band’s classic and hard rock influences.

In the time between me starting this review and finishing it, Guided by Voices announced the debut LP of their side project with the same lineup, Cub Scout Bowling Pins, which debuted in January with the great Heaven Beats Iowa EP. I know people who swear that Heaven Beats Iowa, with its lo-fi bubblegum pop charms, is Pollard’s Best Work in Decades, and when the full record comes out I’m sure it’ll spur the same kind of hyperbole. Just like how Earth Man Blues is Rolling Stone’s Best Pollard Album in Decades, and how August by Cake is my personal Best Pollard Album in Decades. I don’t begrudge the music press or fans of the band for talking about Guided by Voices this way—after making over thirty albums just with his main band and over a hundred in total, how do you compare Robert Pollard’s records to anything but the entire universe of music in which it resides? That these later-career records keep inspiring such language, however, suggests larger forces at work here than a band occasionally hitting the highs of its “heyday”. And while it’s fun to play the “what if this was the debut from a new buzz-band instead of the third Guided by Voices album in the past 12 months” game, it doesn’t work because nobody else could’ve made Earth Man Blues. It’s another Guided by Voices album, and a pretty damn good one too. (Bandcamp link)

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