As if Guided by Voices weren’t prolific enough in their ’90s heyday, Robert Pollard has amped things up considerably in the 2010s. When that classic ’90s lineup reunited earlier this decade, they remarkably pumped out six new albums within a mere two and a half year period, while the current reboot of the 1997-2004 Doug Gillard era produced two last year, including sprawling double album August by Cake. A wealth of new material from a band we once thought were gone for good is something to celebrate, but there’s been an undeniable sense since 2012 that they’ve been spreading themselves too thin across multiple releases, rather than pooling their best songs together – a compilation of their best work from this decade would rival some of the band’s classic albums, but each individual record has been stuffed with inessential filler.
The scrappier, more ramshackle albums from 2012-14, partly aided by the contributions of secondary songwriter Tobin Sprout, usually contained enough undeniable charm to carry them through, weaker material often being at least deliberately obtuse and odd. But having since returned to the slicker style of their early 00s years, weaker tracks that littered last year’s albums just felt meandering and pointless, like a band over-stretching themselves and running out of ideas.
Space Gun has been pointedly announced as the band’s only album this year, as if to reassure fans of a newfound focus and allay the criticisms that they’ve previously ignored. It is still a mere seven months since the release of How Do You Spell Heaven, but they have managed to craft their most focused and consistent album in a while here. That this album feels a lot shorter than How Do You Spell Heaven despite being two minutes longer is telling of the fact that it doesn’t run completely out of steam the way that record did, even if it perhaps doesn’t always scale the heights of that album’s stellar first half Pollard’s melodies, always either his strongest or weakest suit, are back on point here, warding off concerns that having written literally thousands of songs he might have finally run out. The title track and ‘See My Field’ are hook laden gems that, even if they don’t reel you in on the first play, will firmly have a hold on you by the second, the latter boasting one of the finest Gillard riffs in a while. Meanwhile the presence of a track called ‘I Love Kangaroos’ would immediately suggest itself as being Pollard at his most infuriatingly throwaway, but surprisingly it’s one of the record’s strongest and most gorgeous moments, a beautifully melodic R.E.M. esque jangle.
Space Gun is far from the band’s most essential album of this decade (2012’s stellar The Bears for Lunch continues to retain that title), but it’s easily the most focused and least frustrating release since Gillard’s return. And it improves with every listen. It won’t be at all surprising if the restless Pollard fills out the rest of the year by reigniting his exceptionally hit and miss solo career or one of his countless side projects – in fact, a bizarre comedy country album under the name Cash Rivers and The Sinners has come out this year already, as well as a new GBV live album, Ogre’s Trumpet. But hopefully GBV stick to this modest (by their standards only) one-per-year rate for a while. While Pollard’s lack of patience and utter disregard for normal album cycles is almost admirable, Sprout and co. had burned themselves out by the time they concluded their second stint with the underwhelming Cool Planet – Gillard and co. could go the same way very quickly if they keep overdoing it.
With a longer gestation period than usual, the next GBV album might turn out to be even stronger than Space Gun. Or it might not. Such is life with modern day Guided by Voices. Cathal McBride