GUIDED BY VOICES – Nowhere To Go But Up

In February 2020, Guided By Voices released their thirtieth full length album, ‘Surrender Your Poppy Field’. At the point where it appeared on record shop shelves, it was seen as just another album from the ever prolific Robert Pollard. At the time, nobody really knew it would be vastly overlooked due to the world grinding to a halt a few weeks later. As it turned out, though, the disc was far from the band’s best. It boasted a grand opening track, and shared a couple of other fine tunes within its thirty nine minutes, but in terms of exciting GBV fare, it seemed rather lacklustre compared to 2018’s ‘Space Gun’ and 2019’s ‘Warp & Woof’ and ‘Sweating The Plague’.

That was just the first of three albums of brand new material released that year, and with another four appearing between April 2021 and October 2022, Pollard and his acolytes found themselves amid a creative streak to rival the golden period between 1993-1996 which yielded five full length albums – including the classics ‘Bee Thousand’ and ‘Alien Lanes’ – and several EPs.

Their third album for 2023 – and 39th, overall – ‘Nowhere To Go But Up’ shows a band far from burnout, or sounding in any way uninspired. Despite coming amid another vast mountain of material, it shares none of ‘Poppy Field’s flaws. Instead, by trimming the fat and the lo-fi oddities and concentrating on bigger sounding songs, it results in one of the most accessible GBV records since 2001’s ‘Isolation Drills’. The tracks feel like relations of the more commercial bits of semi recent works like ‘Mirrored Aztec’ (2020) and ‘It’s Not Them…’ (2021), and although that could lead to something predictable, at least half of its tunes – and they’re all actual tunes this time out – work some of the biggest riffs heard on a GBV record since the band reunited in 2010.

The more melodic streak at the heart of the album is clear from the off, when ‘The Race Is On, The King Is Dead’ emerges with a swaggering attitude, with Doug Gillard’s guitar presented very highly in the mix. Against his chunky, mid tempo chords and a solid drum sound, Pollard serves up a vaguely wavering vocal that shares an obtuse lyric that appears to compare a change of routine or a relationship breakup with historical regicide. With a further shift towards light psychedelia for the middle eight – driven by brighter guitars – and the second half of the number filled out with mellotron-ish drones, there are a few moments where the song begins to feel a little more like a deep cut from The Flaming Lips circa 1994 than classic GBV, but there’s plenty regarding its confident, melodic heart that makes it thoroughly enjoyable. It’s certainly the kind of unexpectedly tuneful opener that inspires further listening. Equally accessible, ‘We’re Going The Wrong Way In’ taps into a 60s via 90s indie sound, often sounding like a rawer take on classic Teenage Fanclub fare, crossed with a couple of Townshend-esque bridges. The bulk of the number works a chiming guitar brilliantly, and with that overlaid by a brighter sounding counter-melody, it sets a strong melodic precedent by GBV standards, and even once a deeper, almost grinding, grungy guitar riff is introduced midway, the number continues to shine. The only real drawback is that it feels like a job half done; there aren’t any dramatic changes, and after a couple of rounds of the verse/chorus, it simply just fades, leaving the listener hanging… In another reality, this might’ve worked a little more effectively as a raw, lo-fi jam – as per ‘Everything’s Thrilling’ (from 2020’s ‘Zeppelin Over China’), or ‘Come On Mr. Christian’ (as found on 2016’s ‘Please Be Honest’) – but here, it’s shared in full blood and still works, even if it doesn’t feel like it quite reaches full potential.

Offering an equally big sound, ‘Puncher’s Parade’ overlays a massive siren-like guitar riff with a very muscular bass sound. Mark Shue’s bass playing is never flashy, but he retains a real presence beneath Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr.’s more direct guitar attack, which on this particular recording helps this version of the ever shifting GBV sound like an overdriven Big Star. Musically, it’s a track that promises big things, but it soon becomes pretty clear that, beyond that opening riff, it almost peaks a little to early. It’s left to Pollard’s ever distinctive drawl to hold it together, and thanks to his typical approach, the track works fine. Even if it sometimes feels as if it could do with a little more pace, the sound is great, and in sharing something that bridges the gap between the moody end of GBV and Mars Classroom, it’s enjoyable enough. More moody guitar takes centre stage during ‘Song & Dance’ when Gillard tips the hat to late sixties blues rock via a slow, very loud riff that rings out above another massive bass sound. A great marriage of styles results in something distinctly non-GBV when the rhythm section trudge through a very slow groove, whilst Gillard throws out sounds like capture the metallic sheen of Bob Mould’s best work circa 1987. Pollard sounds decidedly uneasy as he warbles against one of the slowest band arrangements to date, but perhaps that’s the point; although it plays far more to traditional rock audiences than the band’s quickly dusted off boombox experiments a la ‘Kicker of Elves’, ‘Superior Sector Janitor X’ or ‘Pimple Zoo’, it feels almost as challenging in a different way. Then, at the point where it feels as if everyone is about to break under the strain, the tempo shifts dramatically and the number finishes with a burst of garage rock – augmented by full blown production values – that could be interchangeable with any of the best tunes from any GBV album post 2016. It’s certainly more of a slow burner thanks to its uneasy quality, but ‘Song & Dance’ eventually feels like another of ‘Nowhere’s champions, and is reason enough to feel that the band will deliver more gold going forward.

‘Jack of Legs’ kicks off with a spiky arrangement that sounds like a garage rock version of The Who colliding with a very old Blue Oyster Cult riff, and uses this angry stance brilliantly and intermittently throughout the next three minutes. Between the sharp edges, the track actually sounds like three half finished ideas melded into a GBV epic, with passages of neo-psychedelia and a slide back into typically chunky rock riffs that aren’t too far removed from ‘…The King Is Dead’, before spending time devoted to a strange freakbeat jam where Gillard’s guitar is offset by quirky keyboard bleeps and stabs. Although a little more direct, it retains the epic feel of earlier tracks like ‘Year of The Hard Hitter’ where a kitchen sink approach has been applied to the arrangement to offset the demo quality tracks that typically bulk out a Guided By Voices record – except in this case, no balance is actually required. Whichever way you approach it, it’s an album highlight, and the same can be said for the spikier ‘Local Master Airplane’, a short number that works a chugging riff very hard throughout, which overlaid by sneering vocals and a 60s inspired chiming tone comes a lot closer to sounding like a Pollard solo recording circa ‘Space City Kicks’. For those on the lookout for feelgood GBV sounds, it’s an instant classic, and that’s before the very 70s dual guitar lead break kicks in…

‘Love Set’, meanwhile, opts for something a little more odd. The track works an extended intro featuring the sound of the band rising from silence to full volume, whilst a repetitive riff is overlaid by a second guitar part working a strange psychedelic lilt. That’s just a ruse, however; after a couple of minutes, the tune that’s been slowly set in place disappears completely and is replaced by an angular, less melodic riff, which in turn, gives way to a massive glam imbibed stomp. The ever changing moods are linked awkwardly by Pollard offering a lax vocal and, from an outsider’s point of view, could be considered a mess. From a fan perspective, the endless shifting and loose melody on the vocal reach something close to peak GBV; a deep dive into an indie rock melting pot that never cares for perfection, and yet retains an oddly captivating stance. Heard in tandem with something as strong as ‘…King Is Dead’, it isn’t an instant classic, but over time, its wilful approach will ensure it’ll be a fan favourite.

It’s only with the arrival of ‘For The Home’ – track nine – that ‘Nowhere’ dares to introduce anything lo-fi. During the track’s first forty five seconds, Pollard cranks out various guitar notes that sound like one of Bert Jansch’s folk experiments from 1970 replayed by a man wearing mittens. It’s merely a musical red herring, however. Once the rest of the band arrive, the track becomes a massive indie rock tribute to 70s glam, with a world of chunky guitar riffs set against an equally big stomping rhythm. The unstoppable Pollard vocal is there, front and centre, never entirely in tune, but always friendly and fascinating, and the rest of the band make good on sounds previously hinted at during ‘Puncher’s Parade’ with the Bare and Gillard twin guitar attack afforded extra punch thanks to a massive drum part courtesy of Kevin March, now enjoying his third tenure with the band since 2002.

The amusingly titled ‘Cruel For Rats’ (surely a twist upon an old Squeeze hit) supplies crashy rock that sounds like “latter day GBV by numbers” at first, yet still brings a few thrills due to a great guitar sound and a massive crunch from the rhythm section. In true GBV fashion, it sets up a great melody, then derails it gleefully via a world of unsettling wails, pulling the listener through a semi-lo fi drone, before dropping back into the massive riff as if nothing happened. Even though this album offers better tracks, there’s plenty to for hardened fans to love, despite an overfamiliar feel and frustratingly premature fade. Rounding out the rest of this largely great listen, ‘Stabbing At Fractions’ leans heavily on a clanging, mid-tempo riff and heavy groove, sounding like another overspill from solo Pollard circa 2011, and ‘How Did He Get Up There?’ relies a little more on droning qualities set against Pollard’s beloved 4/4 clang, but panders a little more to the older fan by dropping in a few atonal guitar moments that break the momentum in a slightly jarring manner, whilst brass sounds pierce through the wall of sound in a rather atonal way. Measured against the bulk of ‘Nowhere To Go’, it’d certainly be an outlier in terms of potential favourites, but as with most GBV experiments, it’s bound to find a champion somewhere.

Without the boombox experiments and some of the stranger vocal affectations, a Guided By Voices album might in danger of becoming a flat affair – possibly even sounding like slacker rock by numbers. That’s certainly not the case with most of the tracks here. Some of the material doesn’t have the quirkiness, or even the speed of the best bits of 2003’s ‘Welshpool Frillies’, but thanks to a terrific guitar sound employed throughout, and with Pollard’s vocals at their most enthused, ‘Nowhere To Go But Up’ shows the veteran band with an awful lot of musical muscle. This is a lean record with just eleven tracks, but with the focus very much on musical hooks and bigger sounds, its an album that even a more casual listener could enjoy. It’s also a welcome reminder of Pollard’s gifts as one of the most interesting alternative songwriters of his generation, and of a band who can approach strong melodies as well as arty noise. If you consider yourself in any way a Guided By Voices fan – even a lapsed one – you need this record. It might not be a hundred percent characteristic of the band’s back catalogue, but what it does, it often does brilliantly, proving that GBV are far more than a machine churning out lo-fi product every four months.

November/December 2023