If the videos he’s been uploading to his Hot Freaks subscription service are any indication, Robert Pollard has been spending much of the Covid-19 pandemic listening to his massive record collection in his pajamas. Perhaps consequently, his omnivorous musical taste has never been on more effective display than on Guided by Voices’ Earth Man Blues, which could be the band’s best album since 1995’s Alien Lanes.
While that might seem like a lofty claim — especially with a discography as expansive as GBV’s — Earth Man Blues squarely hits all the marks that make Guided By Voices great — again and again and again. A collage of previously unfinished or rejected songs resurrected and forged into a rock opera about Pollard’s childhood, this is GBV as pure id: bonkers lyrics, aural experimentation, and hooks for days. Just try to get “Sunshine Girl” — a sweet little rocker that sounds like the Monkees on downers — out of your head. Pollard and his “race car mind” are now a permanent part of your hippocampus.
Although the record purports to have a narrative of sorts, it’s really more of a suggestion — like watching a movie on hallucinogenics, the story being told and the story being perceived are likely two disparate things. The band goes full Tommy on tracks like “Dirty Kid School,” only to skitter over to rocker “Trust Them Now,” which kicks off with a guitar riff reminiscent of Blink-182’s “All the Small Things.” (Don’t worry, the song doesn’t wander too far down the garden path of pop-punk, instead swerving right at the last moment into melodic gorgeousness.) The heavy guitars that kick off “Lights Out in Memphis Egypt” propel you squarely into Black Sabbath territory, though, complete with spooky voiceovers. Then it’s on to “Free Agents,” a solid GBV-brand track with a chorus that just goes off the rails in the best possible way.
The firehose of influences spews on with the previously mentioned “Sunshine Girl,” the Sparks-esque “Ant Repellent,” and then back to class again with the middle school dance trauma ballad “Margaret Middle School.” Swoon and sway a bit to “I Bet Hippy” and “How Can a Plumb Be Perfected,” before shaking it all out to the riff-replete “Child’s Play.” Put this record on and see how long it takes to utter your first joyful expletive.