Don’t Stop Now: The Unending Generosity of Robert Pollard
To start, a syllogism:
The double album is the emblem of generosity.
Guided by Voices’ new record, August by Cake, is a double album.
Therefore, August by Cake is an emblem of generosity.
And if — as we’ve established beyond any doubt through the rigors of logic— this record is an emblem of generosity, Guided by Voices’ head Samaritan, Robert Pollard, is the very quality itself.
Pollard’s inimitable and undiminished life force as an artist gives us so much, so much of the time. The man who penned the tireless 1996 anthem “Don’t Stop Now” (Under the Bushes Under the Stars) continues to heed his own advice. The result? One hundred LPs under various guises and configurations (GBV’s August by Cake is the one hundredth). Grand, gritty and sublime three-hour live shows. A brim-full catalogue of songs that cover the known map of the rock world from metropolis to outlying station. A lyrical output so richly verbal and varied that the Academy in Stockholm could have preempted Dylan’s snub by placing the call to Dayton, Ohio, instead. And now a fully realized double album aglow with destined-to-be-beloved songs recorded by a fresh and inspired incarnation of Guided by Voices.
In its own maverick way, Guided by Voices is a vehicle for what rock & roll has always provided: transport to a state beyond our everyday certainties and restraints. And, as a record like ABC proves, this avatar of abundance and his band are more invested in getting us there now than they’ve ever been. We’re all thinking about death, but not all of us are living more fully because we do. ABC’s ultimate expression of generosity? It helps us reach for life.
Pollard noted in 2006 when he released his last major double album, the milestone solo record From a Compound Eye, “You can’t make an album that’s seventy-one minutes long if things sound similar.” Generosity has to involve more than big numbers — variety, intensity and even a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-make-it-stick bravado all count, too. So August By Cake is a double because it deserves to be — thirty-two songs over more than seventy-five minutes that represent a band whose singular writer/performer is gleefully profligate with his many gifts, proving, by turns, big-hearted, gnomic, cinematic, experimental, intimate, rhapsodic, earnest, ironic, straight-forward, ferocious, pure and fearless.
The opening track, “5° on the Inside,” alone offers an object lesson in what it truly means to give. There’s time here and perspective — along with delicious doses of pop beauty and rock punch. Doug Gillard’s fine-spun guitar figure ushers into the song all that’s good about the sparkle and chime of the “Paperback Writer”-era Beatles, an apt example of what this long-time (and now happily returned) Pollard collaborator brings to the work: instantly memorable and expertly realized guitar parts that ground and leaven every song. Then Pollard continues to riff on 1966 with wordplay that summons up Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” (“Ninety-six years and still crying,” Pollard sings, before giving it to us straight: “Baby that’s old”).
The rhythm and changes are invigorating even if the touchstones are familiar, but what does allusion matter if the substance isn’t there? These aren’t just casual references to the pop past for the hell of it or an indicator that the music is stuck on the ‘60s (true enough, in its way, and also not the case at all). Instead, they remind us of the record’s central concerns: time, mortality and making the most of what’s here and what’s left: “Time takes a lot . . . from birth to death,” as Pollard puts it on “We Liken the Sun”; he’s keen on finding “a fresh view” “for year to year eternities” in “What Begins on New Year’s Day.” “5°” kicks it off not only by reanimating that perfect lost year of 1966, but by worrying the inevitable bone of getting too old, too sad and too cold, answering all such concerns on track one in a way that arrests and then lifts us.
The warmth and inspiration also involve the way Pollard opens the album up to his collaborators. Drummer Kevin March proves to be more than hugely energizing and inventive (although he’s all that, all the time) as he offers a melodic gem with “Overloaded.” Mark Shue, GBV Academy freshman bass player and cover-boy (he’s gripping the bottle on the front of the record) shows he’s more than a wicked four-string phenom with the driven barre-chord rocker “Sudden Fiction.” Bobby Bare, Jr. — no mean solo artist in his own right — steps up as a Tobin Sprout-level foil for Pollard with the GBV-ready “High Five Hall of Famers.” And Gillard contributes “Goodbye Note,” a nod sound-wise to GBV’s 1999 major label release Do the Collapse that’s steeped in lost time and hope and delivers an accessible emotional punch. The range and variety of these songs and others from what is arguably the most all-in and musical band Pollard’s ever assembled bolster the album and extend it even as Pollard’s new compositions make the record cohere and resonate beyond them.
This double album, like any double album, is a rite of passage for the listener — a conduit into the big room of rock from whence a good light still shines: the blue-black glimmer of Tommy and the pure white from The Beatles glowing and lifting us after their long journey here from the Days of Real Music. And as a release like this confirms, there is no Day of Real Music more real than today.
The light August By Cake shines may seem at first glance to be simple beer-bottle green, but the depths of that utilitarian glassy verdure delivers death and transcendence like any true American art from Walden to the fittingly upbeat apocalyptica of ABC’s “When We All Hold Hands at the End of the World.” As Pollard sings, “Everyone stands/when we all hold hands/at the end of the world” — and even though it’s another beginning and not close to the end for Guided by Voices —get up on your feet and receive this open-handed offering with the eagerness it deserves and the gratitude you can’t help but feel.
MARC WOODWORTH is Associate Editor of Salmagundi. He is the author of a book of poems titled Arcade and of Bee Thousand in the 33 1/3 series. He’s currently preparing a second edition of How To Write About Music for Bloomsbury. He teaches at Skidmore College.
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