Guided by Voices, “Zeppelin Over China”

In 2019 Robert Pollard’s music is critic-proof. His hundreds of recordings, usually coming at an almost non-stop pace, resemble a river you either run away from or fully immerse yourself in. (For evidence, and a deep dive, see the 79-hour Pollardverse playlist someone put on Spotify.)

It’s also critic-bait, in the sense that those who choose submersion set themselves up for obsession, dissection, comparisons and an endless addiction to list-making. It’s fanboy-bait, then, perhaps even more so. Music for those OK with getting led into a cult.

There’s a with-us or against-us quality to Pollard/Guided by Voices fans that sometimes belies our individual preferences within that fandom. At this point, personal preference is without a doubt going to be a factor in any review of a new Pollard/GBV album, even for someone like me who has a hard-to-count number of records, CDs, cassettes, T-shirts, books, posters, etc. with a Pollard connection. When someone says that X Pollard album is the best thing he’s done in years (as I may be about to; spoiler alert…), where that writer is coming from matters.

So let’s put personal preference front and center. By now I know which types of Pollard songs are my favorites and which my least. My least favorite are the power-crunch anthems and overt ‘classic rock’ exercises (meaning ‘70s over ‘60s; big and ponderous over quick and lean). Pollard’s version of prog-rock, of hard rock. The fewer songs where the band stomps forth while Pollard intones rock-and-roll “yeahs” and “uh-huhs”, the better.

My preference is for these three Pollard song-types: 1. Short-and-weird (one-minute or less, surreal). 2. Bubblegum (the hookiest, most pop sing-along tunes). 3. Mid-paced melodic melancholy. By the latter I mean ‘ballads’ in a general sense, and mid-tempo songs where melody is a driver but in a more impressionistic way, not as a straight-ahead carrier of a repeatable chorus but as a feeling or mood.

The new Guided by Voices album Zeppelin Over China persistently leans towards type 3, which is right up my alley. Bubblegum pop, hard-rock stomp and song-sketches are like birds circling around, appearing here and there but never landing for long.

A double album split neatly in half (16 songs each), it feels to me so much like two separate albums that I’ve taken to thinking of it as two. In my thoughts I’ve begun referring to the second half as Zeppelin Over China, since the sixth song on that half is “Zeppelin Over China”, and to the first half as Holy Rhythm, after the sixth song on the first half.  I think of the album this way because I’m a nerd. But also because it helps me digest this beast in a way that makes sense to me.

Holy Rhythm is kind of a perfect title for the first half, which picks up where 2018’s Space Gun left off, dancing close to that stompier, crunchier side that’s not my favorite, but within anthems streamlined by melody and a psych-pop dreaminess, to move forward in a tuneful and driving, yet pleasantly strange way.

The pleasures of these first 16 songs are familiar and new at once. Style-wise I’d slot this in the Under the Bushes Under the Stars/Isolation Drills vein of melodic pop-rock, but with less of a sense of striving for hits. They’re comfortable here with abstraction and strangeness, with it all washing over the listener the first time through, the details sinking in deeper with each listen.

Nothing here is out-of-this-world new for Pollard; it hovers in a comfortable, and comforting place for fans. Yet it also feels very fresh, in the sound, in the strength of the current band (Pollard, Doug Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr, Mark Shue, Kevin March, Travis Harrison), and Pollard’s fairytale/surrealist lyrics, which feel more purposeful and at the same time intuitive than they have recently.

There are unique and memorable songs throughout the first 16. “Carapace” (a word that means the hard shell of a turtle, apparently) might be the most rhythm-driven GBV song in years; even the singing becomes mostly about the rhythms of the words as they break down into nonsensical syllables. “Send in the Suicide Squad” steps up the emotion, the hookiness and the late ‘60s pysch-pop leanings in a tidy package. “Bellicose Starling” is tender and pretty in a still warped way. “Charmless Peters” takes Pollard’s psychological probing in a near-horror direction, and then unexpectedly leads into an anthem built around the line “Smoke / them / if / you /have / them”, sung with that emphasis.

“The Rally Boys” is the punchy pop classic, optimistic yet mysterious. I love the playfulness of the final lines – “you won’t catch the rally boys / the cyclone alley boys / the Rand McNally boys.” The first half ends with “You Own the Night”, a rousing finale.

Yet we’re only halfway there.

The second half is in a very similar vein, but in some ways goes even further into it. Some songs fall into  a gorgeous but unsettled dream-state – like a sharper, deeper version of some of Pollard’s most introspective, most underrated minor releases (say, 2010’s Moses on a Snail). But scattered throughout are the punkest songs of the album – spunky little razor cuts.

Each half of the album has its own beginning, middle and end. This second half starts quick with “Everything’s Thrilling”. At first it sounds optimistic, but what is thrilling? Sin, dying, “a minimal request for the river of souls”.

That’s not the only reference to sin, and certainly not the only one to mortality, in this portion of the album. There’s a continual thread of life and death, without any one clear idea or message. As always, Pollard’s lyrics are more poetic image-clouds than complete stories. One theme here is survival, challenges. In “Questions of the Test” it’s a challenge to give the right answers; it could be one of those “oh crap I didn’t study” school nightmares, but it feels broader in scope.

Yet it’s hard to characterize or summarize even just these last 16 songs. There’s one straight-up fantasy piece (“Lurk of the Worm”) and an incredible pop tune that seems maybe music industry-related (“My Future Is in Barcelona”). The prettiest song in this stretch, “We Can Make Music”, might not be about music at all – “We can make music with the trees / shake them so they’ll sing / until they are free.”

“The Hearing Department” is some kind of classic, of a variety I’m not sure I’ve heard from Pollard. I keep interpreting the title as a menacing corporate entity. But more likely the song might just be about people who struggle to hear.

This is not a concept album, and to treat it so would be a mistake. But something’s lurking beneath the surface, some deep-down questions about life and the universe, that I’ll keep trying to bring up to the surface as I listen.

As I’ve said time and again, to try and rank Pollard’s albums seems beside the point, with the way he approaches music- and art-making as one continual action. Yet, nonetheless, I’m an obsessive fan, so I won’t hesitate to declare it as the best, most exciting Guided by Voices album of the past 15 or more years. And I’ll be right, in my own mind at least.