It's Robert Pollard's world; we just live in it. Widely known as the highly prolific singer-songwriter for indie-rock heroes Guided By Voices, Pollard also self-releases several side projects each year, his output now numbering in the dozens. The last year has seen two such records released, under the monikers Airport 5 (with ex-GBV member Tobin Sprout) and Go Back Snowball (with Superchunk's Mac MacCaughan). Some (including this writer -- see review for Go Back Snowball's Calling Zero elsewhere on this site) feel that Bob spreads himself too thin with so many projects on the go. The man can't seem to help himself, feeling the need to constantly step outside of himself. Fortunately for us, the sometime inconsistencies of his solo work have not spilled over into his work with GBV. After a somewhat shaky two record stint on major label TVT, the band was released from their contract and sent packing. Again, fortunately for us, it has resulted in Guided By Voices most consistent, sonically true and, well, the most fun and rocking album in years, possibly since 1994's Bee Thousand.
Universal Truths and Cycles is not only a return to indie label Matador Records, but also a return to the basics -- a guitar rock album self-produced back in Dayton, Ohio. The previous albums Do the Collapse and Isolation Drills, produced by Ric Ocasek and Rob Schnapf, respectively, definitely had their moments, but the prettied-up sound of the drunken lads just wasn't right. Some things are just not meant to be dressed up in that way. Self-produced with the aid of bassist Tim Tobias' brother Todd, Guided By Voices sound like a live rock band again, a dynamic missing in the last few outings. Long past his lo-fi ideals, the album is still well produced and retains a clear sonic presence, while retaining the edges previously dulled. Pollard's voice is clear and as strong as ever, his rock star swagger still evident in songs like the single "Everywhere with Helicopter" and the prog-pop, dramatic "Christian Animation Torch Carriers". The real stars this time out may be long time GBV guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley. Their made for arena-rock guitars are front and centre.
"Skin Parade", whose quiet, pub-like sound quality (replete with the sounds of bottle and glasses clinking, as well as conversation), gives way to a "Cat Scratch Fever"-era Ted Nugent-like guitar riff. The huge sounding "Cheyenne" has some very Peter Buck-esque guitar noodling, not to mention the ringing open chords. Two of the album's best tracks are back to back. One, "Pretty Bombs", is a mid-tempo with breaks for string sections, along with some beautiful guitar soloing in the outro. The other is the most obvious balls-out rocker of the set, "Eureka Signs". This would be huge hit material, but this is Guided By Voices, and that's not how it works. It seems the pressure to write "hits" while on TVT, now being gone, has produced even stronger songs.
Universal Truths and Cycles is not only Guided By Voices strongest record in some time, it is also the best rock record this year. With the public's renewed interest in "rock" music again, fostered by such media darlings as the Strokes, the White Stripes, et al, hopefully GBV can capture some much more deserved and due attention. Fans who were made worried by the past few releases can rest assured. This is a GBV record like they used to make 'em. Pollard's lyrics are as clear as always, that is to say, not at all. Most songs check in at less than three minutes, each imbued with catchy hooks and loud guitars. The band seems to have a renewed sense of fun, both on this record and live, so as long as St. Bob can keep himself focused and in this plane, this could be an exciting new era for Guided By Voices.