Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices have released so many songs that the quality of their music is often overshadowed by its quantity — a song library that quintuples that of The Beatles. Pollard has manifested a dedicated following around his prolific output and idiosyncratic songwriting; he’s essentially a genre unto himself, with fans that buy everything he releases, from solo albums to side projects. Taken at face value, the daunting amount of material he’s penned verges on gimmick.
But Pollard isn’t asking you listen to everything. Writing songs is just what he does. He breathes melodies and lyrics, weaves them into songs, then punches “Rec” on the 4-track over and over again, and not always in that order. Albums are assembled wisely, like a poet selecting works for an anthology from a library of compositions. Add a few songs from returned guitarist Tobin Sprout to change up the pace, slap a badass collage on the front, and presto: GBV album.
It sounds simple because it is. Hell, anybody can make an album — that’s GBV’s whole premise. But nobody has Robert Pollard’s knack for melody. If you give him chords, he will come up with something catchy. And he never repeats himself, even after singing a thousand different songs a thousand different ways. His songwriting has an acute personality that garners devout fans and lends religious meaning to otherwise nonsensical phrases like “kicker of elves.” Pollard is totally OK with this perceived cult status. He’s even proud.
On “Littlest League Possible”, the lead track on GBV’s 20th full-length, Motivational Jumpsuit, he addresses the very meta question of “who’s really listening to these songs and why am I doing this?” via a baseball metaphor. “We’re banging it out in the Texas League,” he sings, “The biggest fish in the smallest pond.” Underneath the self-deprecation is a sense of pride, an acceptance of GBV’s niche in the annals of rock. Chugging guitars set the tone for the rest of the album, which is their moodiest and most energetic since the reunion with Sprout.
The record keeps a frantic pace with typical short track lengths; however, the random bouts of atonality and other experiments that often crop up on GBV albums are mostly dropped in favor of serialized pop songs. Motivational Jumpsuit moves from one jam to the next, the garage sludge of “Child Activist” morphing into the power pop churner “Planet Score”, which then becomes Sprout’s first contribution, the pleasant “Jupiter Spin”. Tracks melt into one another (thanks to fancy tape work perfected by the band back in the ’90s) and work to build momentum throughout the first half of the record.
Aside from two uneventful middle tracks (“Go Without Packing” and “I Am Columbus”), the band play at mid-tempo or faster nearly the entire time. On highlights “Vote For Me Dummy” and “Alex and the Omegas”, Pollard cops The Who with dignity and class, while Sprout evokes his inner Big Star on “Shine”. GBV have never been afraid to wear their influences on their sleeve, and they do so to strong effect here.
This makes Motivational Jumpsuit an accessible entry point into the world of Guided by Voices, comparable to Propeller and Alien Lanes as it reaches for big rock tropes in a lo-fi context. Working in their own artistic bubble, Pollard and Sprout are driven, and Motivational Jumpsuit is the product of that passion. They just love to write songs and make records. Their reasonable Midwestern ambitions form the crux of their success. Of the 20 tracks here, there are maybe five duds. Hitting .750 ain’t too shabby, even in the Texas League.
Essential Tracks: “Littlest League Possible”, “Shine”, and “Alex & the Omegas”