Guided by Voices Earth Man Blues Review
Oh, sweet Jesus… where to begin…
There’s this meme floating around, right? Very big, very new meme, and this meme is a picture of Sean Bean from Lord of the Rings, right? From that scene where he says “One does not simply walk into Mordor,” and the reason I bring this up is because one doesn’t simply go to college and not be a Guided by Voices fan. It just doesn’t happen. Make that meme happen folks, and check out Rage Comics when you’re done.
Now, while Guided By Voices aren’t really a household name anymore, they’re still at it, releasing three albums in 2020 alone and another on April 30th of this year by the name of Earth Man Blues. And while I’ve not heard everything by Guided By Voices, I checked this one out because I’d not heard their new stuff in a good long while.
Reviewing a GBV album is a difficult task. Frankly, I don’t know why I’m doing it. Every one of their albums is so all-over-the-place, clashing styles and instruments, but sometimes the formula works. The drive--or rather the magic--of frontman Robert Pollard is his voluminous output. He couldn’t stop making music if he wanted to, and the effect of this massive quantity of music shines through every once in a while. Nobody likes every song the man has written, and you really aren’t meant to. There’s a song out there, and it’s different for every fan, that is going to knock your socks off. For me, that song was “I Am A Tree,” released back in 1997 on the album Mag Earwhig! It’s a blast of power-pop that felt as though it was made for me and me alone, and I’m consistently shocked when people don’t love it half as much as I did the first time I heard it. And it’s upon hearing that song--“that song” being your GBV anthem--that you begin chasing that high that you never quite find again. And here’s my hot-take, folks. Get ready. Guided By Voices have never, in their thirty-some album output, made a perfect album. Their success can only be measured by the ratio of quality to dogshit-nonsense. Now, how does Earth Man Blues bat, you ask? Well, I’m pleased to report that on this album here, some thirty-years on, the average is pretty fucking high.
If I was to pigeonhole Earth Man Blues, and I hate to do it, I’d say it’s power-pop, but that’s not entirely fair. The opener, “Made Man,” is a lo-fi spirited indie rock song and “Lights Out in Memphis (Egypt)” is an unconventional rocker that seems influenced by 70’s hard-rock and executed in a way only he could pull off, but every album seems as though it’s been put on shuffle. The order is totally arbitrary and makes for a wild and strange listen. Nothing as good as “I Am A Tree” here, but I’ve long stopped hoping. I was pleased with “Trust Them Now,” a beautiful early single, and that was actually what prompted me to check it out. Many songs on here are like it. “Wave Starter,” “I Bet Hippy,” and “Test Pilot” are all exceptional power-pop bursts clocking in at under three minutes--the foremost almost borrowing the chorus from “ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart”--and that’s far more than most of their stuff.
There’s a lot of meaningless stuff here though, and perhaps it all is. But that makes the moments of brilliance all the more impressive. Knowing that this profundity was in all likelihood accidental. There’s a song about a kid who hits a baseball so hard it flies forty miles. A weird song about ant repellent. A juvenile poem about a school for dirty kids. And then such profundities as those in “The Disconnected Citizen” come out of nowhere, which envisions what I believe to be a college as a post-apocalyptic wasteland the narrator can’t find peace in--and the simplistic beauty found in “How Can a Plumb Be Perfected?” which examines, simply, the paradox in the idea that if a plumb is imperfect, there would be no way of knowing. And to the untrained ear, this song is the most poetic song on the album. I don’t think so. All of these songs could be poetry, I think, and I’m just not intelligent enough to grasp most of them. What’s more likely though is that none of them are. And I don’t know which possibility I respect more.