Reading critical opinion of the reformed Guided By Voices output is a drag. It appears as though reviewers begin with the assumption that nothing Robert Pollard will ever make will compare to pre-breakup classics Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Propeller.
So, apparently, critics refuse to listen to whatever record Guided By Voices have presented them with – be it Pollard’s first or 14th record that calendar year – and draw loose connections to his previous work, and give the album middling marks lest they be caught out by other critics’ positive or negative opinions.
The personal, sentimental weight that those records carry is hard to ignore, so Pollard’s relentless songwriting urge invites heinous ‘damned by faint praise’ reactions for some of his most impressive collections. However, as his already-staggering body of work has nearly doubled post-reformation, it’s about time people started judging these records for what they are, not what they aren’t.
By following the stream of releases Pollard bestows on his audience (or dipping in and out) listeners are free to cherry-pick their favourite tracks for streaming or automatic playback via their device of choice. But to pick one track from amongst the rest seems, to a large extent, pointless with Guided By Voices – Pollard’s often random, magpie tendencies are showcased not only by the variety of music he releases, but the volume.
Motivational Jumpsuit is the fifth post-reformation Guided By Voices album (20th in total) and the first of those not to feature Kevin Fennell (drums, eBay and dirty laundry make up that tale). The miracle here is that over its 20-song run, Motivational Jumpsuit clears any pre-existing assumptions about Pollard’s recent work, and is the benchmark for New Guided by Voices – and by coming in at less than 40 minutes, it doesn’t stay long enough to make anybody think otherwise.
Opener Littlest League Possible (is it a reference to the last record, or a response to it, or an offcut from it?), is a short, hazy hit of fuzzy rock, complete with hummable chorus and slacker poetry. Until Next Time follows: a sparse lo-fi acoustic ballad featuring a single guitar accompaniment to Pollard’s cracked croon. Writer’s Bloc (Psycho All The Time) is a highlight: a grinding riff repeated over clattering drums and scattershot observations.
The rough-edged rockist triptych of Child Activist, Planet Score and Jupiter Spin are also amongst the best of the fine offerings here. Child Activist is a heavily distorted tune built around a shuffling beat and grunge-y riff. Planet Score is a loose garage-rock track with slashing chords – while Jupiter Spin is a pensive cut with a plaintive Laurel Canyon vocal melody and wah-wah solo.
The dry, faux-Brit psych-pop Pollard conjures on Evangeline Dandelion is a tribute to wonky Sixties pop, while Save the Company and Vote For Me Dummy come across as loving pastiches of earlier incarnations of Guided By Voices. Save the Company is a classic lo-fi ditty carried along on the Be My Baby drum-line (the times it has been used on frayed indie ballads defies belief). It’s one for the diehards.
Vote For Me Dummy’s roaring guitar is worth pointing out purely for its resemblance to the kind of riff-rock vibe they were grooving to just before their split – it could easily slot onto records like Earthquake Glue or Isolation Drills. I Am Columbus goes a similar direction to where Grant Hart was pushing in on The Argument – it’s got a tight, buzzing college rock feel matching Pollard’s off-kilter melodies and odd lyrical wit.
Alex and the Omegas is the best track here, and it was also released as a single along with six of the other album tracks. It’s a crunchy, (relatively) muscular track that gallops where GBV usually trot, a rollicking number that shows Pollard’s hairier moments to be as thrilling as they ever were.
Motivational Jumpsuit feels like an accidental masterpiece and is without a doubt the strongest of the newer records. However, ubiquitous statements like that are completely irrelevant here: Robert Pollard (like Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Neil Young and the recently, sadly, departed Lou Reed) has got to a point where his legacy is assured, regardless of the quality of his records. There are moments of real beauty here and songs that will merit whichever slant critical opinion takes, be it good, bad or indifferent – such is the nature of Pollard’s craft.
To honest and patient ears, every post-reformation Guided By Voices album grows in stature with each listen – the records, when afforded the luxury of time and patience, surprise the listener by revealing themselves to be much more than they first appear. Motivational Jumpsuit is no different. Each listen reveals moments easily missed the first time around, and they become the moments where Pollard’s underappreciated genius shines brightest.