Superman Is A Rocker And His Name Is Robert Pollard
I’ve known about Guided By Voices for a long time. At least since I was 15 or something and asked my guitar teacher to bring me some of their albums after seeing the name online. I liked Aliens Lanes and Mag Earwhig! (not Bee Thousand though, which for some reason I always thought was overrated), but it wasn’t until the Boston Spaceships album The Planets Are Blasted that I started to really go nuts for this guy.
The Planets Are Blasted was the clincher because, unlike those cherished mid-90s GBV albums, it was (by Pollard’s standards) a lean 14 tracks long. Even if each song was like 1-minute long, the classic GBV albums are like 30 songs long and I just would always lose patience with them. I also liked how with The Boston Spaceships (and even later GBV work that at the time I hadn’t heard) the songs were actually fleshed out rather than just tossed off bits of genius.
The more I listened to Planets, the more I started to get why people worship Robert Pollard.
It’s because he is the Superman of songwriting.
Though Pollard’s songs don’t (appear to) have any kind of deeper meaning and he’s not Bob Dylan writing stunning metaphoric imagery, or Lou Reed capturing the existential angst of city life, his grasp on hook craft and the abandon with which he rocks out may be unparalleled in all of rock music. When Pollard sits down to write a song, he never gets bogged down in any pretensions: he knows what he wants and what he wants are smashing rock hooks.
Song after song, Pollard’s verses are strong and melodic, but cut quickly to the chorus where he always seems effortlessly able to create incredible momentum and climax, often by repeating the same phrase over killer changes that manage to ‘lift’ it higher and higher. Sure, whatever, a lot of songwriters can write a solid chorus, but the sheer consistency with which Pollard can pump them out is astounding. It’s like he simply has the formula down for busting out pop songs. Or maybe he’s like that guy in Sandman who is driven mad by inspiration, except Pollard actually will turn all that inspiration into killer songs.
Like many 90s indie rockers, his lyrics seem chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, but Pollard just has this kind of earth shattering conviction noone else has. Even when he’s singing the most ridiculous thing, it always just sounds like, “yeah, totally.”
“He’s a terrible burden/On the quest for perfection/He’s such an infection/But it never gets him down,” he sings in “Johnny Optimist”.
Or another great line: “She may love her eggs,” from “Fair Touching” off Isolation Drills.
What do those lines even mean? They probably meant nothing when he wrote it, but you always know that even if he doesn’t mean it, he believes it. Maybe the first one means that he (the person being described) is a very far-from-perfect person, but he’s cool with that. Maybe the second means that she’s in love with youth and fearful of getting older and becoming infertile. Maybe. I don’t know. There’s always potential for meaning in Pollard songs, just like in everything apparently written nonsensically, but it’s that conviction of Pollard’s that truly makes him special. Even songwriters like Stephen Malkmus (who gets by on apathetic coolness) or Frank Black (who gets by on charisma and off-kilter-ness) who wrote some of the greatest indie rock of the 90s, simply don’t have the kind of conviction for material that is truly ridiculous like Pollard does. He seems like Jack Black’s character in School of Rock, a guy with a crazy record collection who’s very soul is possessed by rock; a kid who never grows up. Coincidentally, Pollard was also a schoolteacher before he started making enough money with his music to stop.
Of course, Pollard is also renown for being incredibly prolific, releasing at least a couple albums either solo or with one of his bands each year. He released more albums in 2009 than most bands release in a decade, or ever. Not all of these albums are great, and not all the songs on them are great, but they’re never that bad, and sometimes they are very awesome. One of the best things about being a Pollard fan is that you’re rarely kept waiting too long between one release and the next, and rarely are they disappointing. Even if he does release a shitty album, he’ll release another in a month that may very well kick ass. And he never changes but he’s never gotten boring either. If you keep doing something really, really well, who cares if you never change?
Actually that’s not true, Pollard has changed. His music has gone from short and scrappy to longer and finer tuned, from more rock to more pop, from 90’s production to 00’s production, and his songs cover a range of style like folk and grunge and different kinds of rock. But he’s never strayed from making the kind of balls-out, everybody-have-fun rock he’s always made and made better than anyone else at a pace that is beyond comprehension.
Superman is a Rocker. And His Name is Robert Pollard.
Here’s a mix of some of his best songs:
1. Guided By Voices – Bulldog Skin
2. Robert Pollard – Things Have Changed (Down In Mexico City)
3. Boston Spaceships – Radical Amazement
4. Guided By Voices – Game Of Pricks
5. Robert Pollard – Silk Rotor
6. Guided By Voices – Fair Touching
7. Boston Spaceships – Dorothy’s A Planet
8. Guided By Voices – Exit Flagger
9. Robert Pollard – Johnny Optimist
10. Guided By Voices – Chasing Heather Crazy