Guided By Voices 2022
Photo: Trevor Naud / Courtesy of Tell All Your Friends PR

Guided By Voices Drop a Late-Career Masterpiece with ‘Crystal Nuns Cathedral’

With Crystal Nuns Cathedral, Guided By Voices deliver a compelling statement and a thrilling testimony to the high artistry of Robert Pollard’s vision.

Crystal Nuns Cathedral
Guided By Voices
GBV Inc.
4 March 2022

Last year’s Earth Man Blues and It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! upped the ante for Guided by Voices albums, the former an unpredictable collage and faux rock opera hailed as the best GBV record in decades, the latter a surprising follow-up brimful of psychological head-scratchers reveling in Pollard’s dark side, power-pop rippers, and soaring, expansive rock featuring refined horn and string arrangements meticulously crafted by guitarist Doug Gillard.

This year’s Crystal Nuns Cathedral is a startling late-career classic that brings back the welcome string arrangements from the last record and flaunts some of the most uplifting, imaginative rock songs of recent memory. Robert Pollard raises the stakes yet again with a hi-fi indie rock record for the ages and one of Pollard’s finest works. Here in-house producer Travis Harrison (known as the sixth member of Guided by Voices and now the equivalent of a George Martin for the band) delivers the most cultivated production possible, the latest iteration of the band sounding like an arena-tested live institution of the highest order. On It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! slick production moves such as the fade-in to “Black and White Eyes in a Prism” and the underwater static of guitar riffs on “The Bell Gets out of the Way” perfectly wedded a hi-fi sound with a lo-fi ethos. This same mindset saturates the solid rock edifice of Crystal Nuns Cathedral. 

Opening with intensely ominous riffs, “Eye City” kicks things off with a renegade prog-inflected stadium rock jaunt through the infinitude of Pollard’s labyrinthine vision, swaying to Gillard’s guitar swells and the haunting depths of a cello played to perfection here by Chris George. The atmosphere is goosebump-inducing, Pollard’s voice elevating above the mix, “arriving violently through the stream / A scene that’s playing out in some god’s dream.” The track fades out to Kevin March’s drum rolls and the interlocking guitar harmonies of guitarists Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. 

The album’s following songs, “Re-Develop” and “Climbing a Ramp”, are two of the most epic Guided by Voices recordings to date, developing Crystal Nuns Cathedral’s central theme of continuous evolution in the face of inevitable change. “Re-Develop” delivers the most uplifting, anthemic chorus on the record with droning backing guitar parts and galloping verses that develop a medieval sound. Meanwhile, “Climbing a Ramp” is a slow-burning track that makes your hair stand on end, culminating in a dazzling guitar lead that dissolves into the next song. It wouldn’t sound out of place during a kung-fu training montage. Here Pollard is the rock guru, and the young grasshopper is the listener. Although the power-pop songs on this album, such as “Excited Ones” and “Crystal Nuns Cathedral”, are standouts, it’s these larger-scale rock songs with lucid hints of crystalline jangle that elevate the staggering Crystal Nuns Cathedral above the waves of GBV’s recent stellar output. 

The fist-pumping rock anthem “Never Mind the List” then makes its case for being performed live at subsequent Guided by Voices shows. On this mid-tempo, dreamlike pop-rock single, Pollard challenges listeners to “describe the marvelous shades of the sun / on the esplanades where the French resort to the last arcades / let it rest and go away.” Pollard graciously elevates rock’s status to a statue of unparalleled beauty on this track. “Never mind the list ’til it’s gone / Make a fist when you pray / Nothing moves me like this / Go inside, let us play,” Pollard sings. The lyrics cover quite a bit of ground, from gorgeous description to feelings of bittersweet remorse, all the way down to the “Vulcan grip” of determination and sheer bewilderment. The resulting track will undoubtedly make its presence felt at live shows to the welcome salutes of Miller Lite sprays. 

Another honorable mention for the record’s best song is “Birds in the Pipe”, an imaginative number introducing a character brandishing a “farcical pipe organ / Which everyone would never want to see” through which his pets flee. Kevin March’s drum parts are reminiscent of marching band percussion here. Part metaphor and part fantasy, it nods to the psychedelia of the Beatles and the adventurousness of the Who, each ensuing verse and chorus adding a fresh layer of depth to its chimerical onion. “I present a challenge,” Pollard claims on the next uplifting track, “Come North Together”. “When you come together / You wouldn’t leave any good love behind,” Pollard sings. Indeed, Pollard presents quite the challenge on this record, the 35th Guided by Voices record in as many years. The band sound as good as ever. Although Gillard is once again the shining standout (consider the tasteful parting riffs of “Come North Together” and “Crystal Nuns Cathedral”), drummer March, guitarist Bare Jr., and bassist Mark Shue have moments to shine as well. They repeatedly click on all cylinders. 

Side Two is just as compelling as Side One. It features the mesmerizing breakdown beats of the slow-churning juggernaut “Forced to Sea” and the head-bobbing, anthemic choruses of “Excited Ones”. It’s another one of those power-pop standouts Pollard has produced over the years, such as “Game of Pricks” featuring driving bass lines from Shue. The sprawling “Huddled” enthusiastically updates the guitar sound of the Paisley Underground, and the fairytale pop of “Crystal Nuns Cathedral” keeps listeners more than engaged. “It’s a storybook slept through / A cup of tea and a crystal nuns cathedral,” Pollard croons. It’s an album indie fans won’t sleep through. Albeit brief, with Crystal Nuns Cathedral, Pollard and co. have struck gold once again, delivering a hi-fi record that proves itself to be just as virtuosic and inventive as any indie rock album of recent memory.

RATING 9 / 10