“Writer’s Block.” Were it another band, another album, this would be another kind of review. But this is Guided By Voices. How do I start when I can’t help feeling that my assessment, however spot-on or erudite, means little under the planet of this artist’s back catalog, which boasts around two dozen albums as a group, with more than a dozen solo albums by their founding frontman. I mean, if you know nothing about Guided By Voices, then you might not understand and suspect I’m stoking melodrama for my sensational introduction. But, if you know just one thing about Guided By Voices, it’s their consistency.
The only knock against this band’s consistency (if you must insist on technicalities) is that they went through a hiatus-period in the 2000s. But since reuniting for tours through the end of 2010, Motivational Jumpsuit is now their fifth album in less than three years. And guess what? Jumpsuit basically sounds like much of GBV’s past works (inevitably since this lineup collaborated on some of the group’s most beloved releases from the mid-90s). GBV are, still, as they’ve been: a scratchy, throttling cough of rustbelt exhaust upon the starched three-piece suit of British Invasion pop-rock, a casting off of punk’s safety-pinned leather jacket for a blue-collared coat of faded denim, shuffling their Converses through drying puddles of motor-oil to restock the cooler of beer in the garage and re-tuning their scuffed guitars just enough, disregarding, nay, embracing, all forms of hissy, fuzzy distortion, before plugging in and ripping away.
At least, that’s the near-parodied perspective of Guided By Voices. There’s so much baggage (and so many albums) to consider when one comes to GBV that you can really just fall in wherever you like; it really just depends on personal preference. On Jumpsuit, you’ll encounter a series of moods, a shift of time-signatures, a bludgeoning of tones. There will be moody slow-dancers to a crackle of distortion, and there will be shit-kicking, asphalt-scuffed, run-and-gun ballads over agit-riffs and swirly solos. There will be woozy dirges that fizzle away after 65 seconds, and there will be door-flinging pop hits juiced with earworm melodies over curdling distortion. There will be about 20 songs, and there will be about 30 minutes’ worth of myriad emotions that you’ll have to re-spin back four times or more to hear all that was sung-and-said.
Get halfway through, and you find the bare-bones spookiness of “Bird With No Wings,” with Pollard’s eerie echoed vocals over a single guitar, starting as a solemn, contemplative little ode that swells into a storm of scratching effects. This goes right into the album’s most poignant moment, “Shine,” a swirl of fuzzy strings under Tobin Sprout’s characteristic nasally wisp and a traipsing strum upon his guitar that blooms, warmer yet still wistful, into a moonlit-tinged lullaby as the electric guitar sounds choked up in its oozy exclamation. Too dark, too weird, too moody? Worry not. The next track, “Vote For Me Dummy,” rolls the windows back down, puts it back in gear, and lets the buzzed-out guitars gurgle with gladness for an up-tempo kicker. Simple melodies and poetic renderings of post-apocalyptic suburbia electrified with an escapist’s yearning, yet tempered back always by the overcast realities of society’s systematized rat-racing.
The expectation with a band as consistent as GBV is that they’d be here forever — as sharp as any valuable hunting knife. They are still sharp, and that’s here in the melodies (however shaded with feedback) and in the music (as keyed-up and quirky as ever). The Jumpsuit protects them against the airless, icy, black holes of an outer space rife with disenchantment, depletion, discouragement — there are many songs (and lyrics) referencing cosmic elements, and so we could build some thesis upon their symbolism of this jumpsuit being akin to an astronaut’s protective layers and its replenishing injections of oxygen. But then, why drive yourself over one GBV album when the next one will be out in 10 months or so, right?
For Guided By Voices — a band that’s provided a galaxy of memories for their fans, a band that’s provided a literal plethora of pop treasures through their 20-song/30-minute albums — no review can be definitive, just as no GBV album, this one included, can truly, ever, be the definitive GBV record. It’s almost like strolling through a gallery of GBV albums, as though they were hung/framed works of art — just dozens of them, a mini-museum. You stop just for a second to unpack the actions, themes, and emotions depicted in this instance, in this work, within this album’s frame. What is the artist trying to do here?
Break through “Writer’s Block.”
“See it, feel it, try it…you’re longing for some high… way,” Sprout sings toward the album closed. “All things were not the same/ Some things are big and some things are small.” It’s not up to us, my Kind, to discern what’s big, whether this one solitary room of a mansion is more architecturally pleasing or “bigger” than the other rooms. Pick your own room.
The music playing in this room? It sounds pretty good.