Being a hardcore Guided by Voices fan certainly isn't easy -- or, for that matter, cheap. In any given year, the non-stop writing/recording machine that is Robert Pollard will crank out anywhere from three to five full-lengths, release five to seven singles and farm out at least a dozen tracks to various compilations and benefit records. While we diligently hand over our hard earned cashola for every single burp, fart and hiccup he commits to tape, deep down all we really want is another actual
Guided by Voices record. When one is finally released, we have a moment of (rather ironic) clarity, and come to the realization that albums like Universal Truths and Cycles
are the reason we look to Pollard for guidance, why we feverishly lap up every recorded table scrap he tosses your way, and why we rally around him and lovingly chant "Thanks be to Bob".
After watching his shot at the big time fall by the wayside, Pollard finally decided that enough was enough. He abandoned the label that all but promised to make him a household name (TVT), as well as the ultra glossy, radio-ready sound that characterized his stint on that flagging imprint. While it's important to note that Universal Truths and Cycles is the band's first Matador release in nearly five years, it is far more significant to mention that it signals a return to the mid-fi mindset that gave us both Mag Earwig and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. No more fancy studios, no more high priced producers; this is truly GBV as nature intended -- reckless, hook-laden and drunk as hell.
As you might expect, Universal Truths and Cycles finds the band focused on the art of songcraft rather than worrying about how many overdubs they've recorded or what time the orchestra is set to arrive. It's clear from the outset that the band is more comfortable this time out, and as a result, there's a freedom and looseness inherent in tracks like "Cheyenne" and "Wings of Thorn" that reminds one of the days when teaching was Pollard's day job and rock 'n' roll was the side gig.
Opening gambit "Wire Greyhounds" is pure old school GBV: thirty-five seconds of chord-bashing/changing, lyrically incoherent rock-punk, and upon its arrival you know they're home. They kick the doors off their new abode with the spiky riffs and rollicking drum rolls of "Skin Parade", then treat the succinct "Zap" as a soundtrack for throwing the furniture onto the front lawn. Drinks are clearly being passed around as they commence knocking the stuffing out of the swaggeringly anthemic "Christian Animation Torch Carriers" and the ultra-hooky "Back to the Lake", then dispatch "Love 1" with the utmost efficiency and vigor as they head to the bathroom for a quick slash. Batteries recharged and Bud Lights in hand, they kick out the slightly-proggish "Storm Vibrations" and "Car Language", a pair of tunes whose nearly five-minute durations are simply gargantuan by GBV standards. The razor-sharp guitar-dart "Everywhere With Helicopter" is undoubtedly one of their finest singles to date, while the jangling title track (one of the rare occasions when the title track actually appears on a GBV record) is a joyous, dissonance-ravaged throwback to the good old days. By the time "Father Sgt. Christmas Card" rings its final note, the whole band is passed out on the floor, their instruments in a heap, sleeping the sleep of five very contented (and, needless to say, inebriated) men.
For the first time in a long time, Pollard and Co. appear comfortable in their space. If the sound of Universal Truths and Cycles is anything to go on, Guided by Voices simply weren't made for the penthouse; they're much happier crashing on the couch.