Robert Pollard's songs live in a universe where time, space, language and sound are simply devices used to rock your mind. His latest work is no exception. Universal Truths and Cycles has a complete checklist of all the elements that make for another great Guided by Voices album: Quirky mixed-image titles, solid rhythmic guitars, lyrics that only Timothy Leary might understand, short songs, long songs, acoustic songs that seem more started than finished, the occasional progressive-rock guitar solo -- it's all there.
Categorization would only cheapen the good feeling Guided by Voices delivers, and good luck coming up with a genre name for these guys. But if you're one for keeping your knives and forks separate, this band began its career in the lo-fi bin, then took a run at major-label rock. GBV could just as easily be called brain-pop if a person were so inclined. You decide. Fans know.
The thirty-five seconds that is "Wire Greyhounds" will remind GBV fans why they became fans in the first place. Hey, remember when you first heard "Motor Away" and you knew that every band from that moment forward was going to be compared to GBV? Well, "Everywhere With Helicopter," with its dipping and lifting helicopter rhythms and hypnotically memorable chorus, is another diamond mined from the same vein. Remember how "Striped White Jets" gave you chills with the military imagery and grunting and groaning guitars? "Storm Vibrations" continues the theme and even ends with the sound of jets screaming overhead.
Folks, if you thought you were getting closer to understanding Pollard's lyrics, you can forget it. Granted, the lyrics on the last two GBV albums recorded for major label TVT had progressively gotten more lucid and in some cases might even have qualified as direct human communication. But now Pollard's gone and moved his band back to the smaller Matador label. Whether the move to a more indie-size label had any influence over the writing is surely debatable. But this latest collection of flipped-out prose re-establishes Pollard as the elder prophet of indie rock. Prepare to resume your position of prostrate reverence at the altar of lyrical soothsaying, obfuscation and jumbled imagery.
On the musical side, the GBV vision keeps getting clearer. With each subsequent album, Doug Gillard's guitar tones and phrasing become more and more distinctive. His riffing is as easily identifiable as any of the songs' memorable vocal choruses. A jaded fan might say that the band's writing is becoming formulaic, but most bands would give their first album advance to have a formula so strong.
Though it doesn't necessarily break any new ground, Universal Truths and Cycles certainly cements GBV's position as one of America's best rock bands. Hey, there's really nothing left for them to prove. They've made great independent records. They've made great major-label records. Now they're just making more great music.