December 2002

Guided by Voices - Universal Truths and Cycles
Matador 547
Released: 2002

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance *****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

Anyone hearing Guided by Voices for the first time could be forgiven for thinking it's a British band. Vocalist Robert Pollard’s guitar-based rock songs owe a large debt to such UK stalwarts as the Who and the Move, but Pollard’s music also takes in the sound and feel of bands at the far ends of the rock spectrum -- from the Clash and REM to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The wonderful paradox of Guided by Voices, especially on their new disc, Universal Truths and Cycles, is that while they sometimes evoke the spirit of music that carries the moldy description "classic rock," they sound as current and fresh as any indie band.

Pollard formed GBV in 1983, and the band has recorded steadily since they released their first EP in 1986. Their early discs were low-fi and long-time fans of the group seem to prefer it that way. Yet the songs and arrangements on those primitive releases suggested the grandeur of larger budget recordings. I think Pollard’s songs lend themselves to the bigger, richer sound that multi-tracking allows. Of the five I've heard, the most fully realized Guided By Voices discs -- Do the Collapse (1999) and Isolation Drills (2001) -- were also their most carefully produced.

The buzz about Universal Truths and Cycles is that it’s a return to the band’s DIY roots. I have to wonder if the people who are saying that actually listened to the disc. Guided By Voices produced it with help from Todd Tobias and, while it does have a few four-track moments (the opening to "Skin Parade"), it shows the same attention to detail as the two discs that preceded it.

The difference here is that the band is in control. Universal Truths and Cycles shows the sure-footedness of a band that’s learned how to use a recording studio. The sound has more dimensions than on their other discs. The guitars ring out further into the room and there’s more space for the other details that give the songs depth and color -- acoustic guitars playing underneath the electric guitars in the foreground, or the odd keyboard flourish here and there. This is easily the most opulent of GBV’s discs, thanks in large part to Tobias, who is credited with "keyboards, noises, and atomspheres [sic]."

Guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley are the other reasons this disc sounds so good. I can’t think of another recent disc, other than Chuck Prophet’s No Other Love, that’s filled with so many varied guitar sounds. Gillard and Farley play every style, from the drive and roar of a garage band ("Car Language") to the grand sweep of Pete Townshend’s ringing chords ("Wings of Thorn"). Gillard plays more solos on here than on any other GBV disc I’ve heard, and they’re models of brevity and invention. Both guitarists know the changes in a song’s texture that can result from using a particular guitar or pickup setting.

In the end, though, it’s Pollard’s songs that make Universal Truths and Cycles such a stunning achievement. His all-encompassing embrace of pop music from the last 30 years or so leads him to juxtapose styles that shouldn’t work together, such as '90s alternative and '70s progressive rock. Because Pollard’s allegiance is to the three-minute pop song, he takes the things that are exciting about prog rock -- the odd time signature or complicated guitar riff -- and builds a song on them without falling prey to the form’s excesses. Like Pete Townshend, he makes rock and roll that is ambitious but keeps its sense of release -- the thing that gives rock and roll its heart.

I want to reiterate that this is not stodgy music that longs for the good old days. It has the headlong rush of a band that takes risks and plays hard. Pollard is in his mid-40s, but he and his band have the sound and conviction of a band in their 20s. Maybe not becoming mega-stars has kept Guided By Voices honest. Or maybe rock and roll really can help you stay young.