Even while Guided by Voices’ ‘classic’ lineup, with Mitch Mitchell on lead guitar and Tobin Sprout on rhythm guitar, is basking in the glow of their reunion tour, it must be noted that the band’s best guitarist was Doug Gillard, GBV guitarist from 1997 to 2004. Already a veteran of cult Ohio bands like Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, and his own Gem, Gillard had the sharpest technique and was the best technical player. More importantly, he is a songwriter with his own keen grasp on melody and harmony who incorporates that into his guitar-playing. His playing was important to the way Guided by Voices’ music developed, to the route the band took in those years.
In 1999, Guided by Voices captain Robert Pollard and Gillard released a collaborative album, Speak Kindly of Your Local Volunteer Fire Department, that made great use of that talent in service of power-pop. Among Pollard’s seemingly infinite array of projects, it’s still considered highly by fans, as is Pollard and Gillard’s 2003 collaboration under the name Lifeguards, Mist King Urth. The album bears the credit “Doug Gillard—All instruments; Robert Pollard—all vocals”, a common way for Pollard to collaborate. Someone gives him musical tracks for him to write lyrics for and sing over. Often derided by critics as a sign of Pollard’s laziness, the approach actually fits squarely within the artistic outlook of a collage artist who has built so much of his art on taking inspiration from existing things around him: words, names, advertisements, historical references, road signs, friends’ jokes, and, of course, the history of rock music.
That collaborative process has lead to some of his most interesting and underrated departures, especially when the music is provided by someone with their own distinct songwriting sensibility, like Tobin Sprout (Airport 5) or Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan (Go Back Snowball). If those albums got too pop or too mood-focused for Pollard’s rabid but sometimes narrowly focused fans, the first Lifeguards album, also a departure of sorts, was pitched more directly to them. Pollard has spoken onstage of the 4 P’s of music—pop, punk, psych, and prog. King Mist Urth, if you can’t tell from the title, was Pollard and Gillard’s version of a prog-rock album: just 11 songs, longer in length, with titles like “Sea of Dead” and “Gift of the Mountain”. ‘Prog’ here doesn’t mean elaborate song-suites, but more a rock sound built on layered guitars and occasionally diverse instruments, things that sound like one of Pan’s flutes for example, with lyrics that lean a little more ‘mythological’.
The second Lifeguards album is a little less obvious in its art-rock ambitions, a little closer in sound to Pollard’s recent output in its mix of pop-rock anthems and weirder trifles. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic listen. You’ll think you’re listening to a straight-up pop song and it’ll get darker, weirder, more complicated. Of course, it’s Gillard doing this, with Pollard following his lead and adding to it. There’s real synchronicity there between the music and vocals/lyrics.
Gillard offers substantial hooks, thick chords, buzzing riffs, eerie piano. Pollard matches each. The more dense or circuitous the music gets, the more Pollard gets spacey and weird, or ominous, like on “Product Head”, with its Big Brother visions, or “You’re Gonna Need a Mountain”, filled with people clinging in fear to something they think is solid. Creepily, he sings from the perspective of a lover or a creator even, a father figure—singing quite emotionally partway through. At almost six minutes, it’s the longest on an LP of three-to-four-minute songs. Funny turns scary (“I love you enough / To hide your stuffed animals / The ones that could bite / Clean through your pillow”) and gets scarier; a little psychotic, too.
There’s darkness here just shy of the Circus Devils’ extreme morbidity. The album gets surrealist, but also offers a bleak view of our consumerist society, and what all these choices and freedoms will get you, on songs like “Sexless Auto”, “Math” (“I hope this letter finds you feeling well / Sick or Used / Only slightly abused / By your televisions / Big decisions”), and “Product Head”. The latter is a weird beat-poem of sorts, which keeps circling back to would-be ad slogans and inversions of them. There’s plenty of ambivalence, even apathy, about the world and where we’re going, as on “Nobody’s Milk”, which again gets awfully creepy in a way that feels rather appropriate to the darker days of our time. “Nobody’s gun / Hey we were just having fun”, he sings at one point. Later shouting, “Nobody cares!” This being Pollard, it’s not outrage or social protest as much as a certain kind of cynical glance. The closing song, “What Am I”, is the creepiest, with Pollard going into a kind of sick rant at one point.
As always, Pollard’s cynicism extends to the music industry and contemporary music, which he seems to view as plastic and soulless compared to his beloved music of yesteryear. He touches on that in the opening track, “Paradise Is Not That Bad”, though you may not notice while you’re enthralled with the song’s big melody. There’s a place in the song where he proclaims, “Here comes the hit”, before getting to the rousing chorus. The thing is, it’s the one song on the album that does sound like a hit. It introduces this album as a work of focus and drive. It’s a proper and complete introduction to the album. Its sarcastic shrug at the idea of a Lifeguards song being a hit, in 2011, plays well into the album’s overall doubt about consumerism and capitalism itself. At the same time, the riveting synergy between Pollard and Gillard on that first track is just a taste of what’s to come.