By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Much has been, and will be, made of the fact that "Fair Touching," the first song on Isolation Drills (the 12th album by Guided by Voices), includes the lyric, "And perhaps at last/The song you sing will have meaning." Meaning: Frontman/heart-and-soul Bob Pollard is singing words you can understand for a change, words that speak from his heart to yours, real words about real things. Real life.
Much has also been, and will be, made of the fact that, finally, on Isolation Drills, Pollard confined many of his clever-just-because, free-association lyrics and bizarre titles ("Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox"--pardon?) and song fragments and unattached choruses to his notepad and the almost-daily tapes he makes at home. Instead of, for once, on his records.
Many will, probably, more than likely, point to these two facts as proof that Pollard, at long last, at 43, has grown up, both as a musician and a man. They will be right, some of them anyway, the ones who understand that the situation is a bit more complicated than that. As it always is. The other ones, well, they will miss the point entirely, won't see that this is a record, the record, that Pollard always wanted to make. And that growing up has nothing to do with it. Any of it. He is grown up, and he's not.
Example: "Last time I came to your town, we went to a party after the show," Pollard says, about 10 seconds into the conversation, referring to Guided by Voices' infamous show at Trees in 1999 and more notorious after-party at a local musician's house. "Some guy was fucking laying--and I don't do cocaine; I mean, every once in a while--and some guy was laying out cocaine with a $100 bill, and it came up missing, and he fucking accused me of taking it." He laughs. "Yeah, that was crazy. I ended up giving the guy, like, $40 out of my pocket--and he took it, too. I go, like, 'Man, nobody took your money, man, but here's some fucking money if you're gonna cry about it.' And he took it."
Or: "Oh, yeah, that was fun. South by Southwest got mad about that because it wasn't a sanctioned show," Pollard says, bringing up yet another infamous show, GbV's drunken and, yes, unsanctioned performance at South by Southwest last year at a party for Revolver magazine. "Fuck South by Southwest. They fucking pocket all the money anyway. They don't pay the bands anything, and they take all the money. Who cares? We don't need them anyway."
That said, and he'll say it again if you ask, no problem, musically, Pollard always wanted his band to sound like it does on Isolation Drills. He always wanted his songs to sound like this. He always wanted to say these things, these words. Maybe not the words on Isolation Drills exactly, but something with meaning, something people understood. It just took him awhile to get around to it, though, sure, other GbV records have bits and pieces strewn about like broken windshields. It took a bad year--maybe his worst year--and a road trip from one coast to another (San Diego to Athens, Georgia) spent thinking about it all, to get it out of him.
"I wrote all of these lyrics [then], because I had time to reflect on the whole year, the whole Do the Collapse thing and being on the road all the time," Pollard says, referring to the time spent on tour, supporting 1999's Do the Collapse, the band's debut for TVT Records. "I became introspective and really personal with these lyrics. When I got back, I put music to them, and that was the record. That was the new record. [Isolation Drills] is about doing things daily that separate you from what you're used to all your life, all the people you left behind."
One of the people Pollard left behind was his wife; they are now separated. Pollard doesn't talk about this much, if only because he doesn't have to. He already has. It's there in songs like "The Brides Have Hit Glass"--it's even there in that song's title--when he sings, "Once again I'll roll the dice/And try to hang onto my shrinking paradise." Or, "It's very odd to find her up again/Staking out expansion/Seeking new exposure." Maybe the song is about what you think it is, maybe it's not, but the idea is definitely there, on the table, ready to be examined.
It's not just on "The Brides Have Hit Glass"; it's everywhere on Isolation Drills. There it is in Pollard's admission that he "won't change" on "How's My Drinking?" There it is again in the somber lyrics--"There will be no graduation/There will be no trumpets blowing"--that sucker-punch you on the undeniably sunny "Glad Girls," a rescued relic from the sessions for 1995's Alien Lanes. Again in the "sinful heroes" of "Pivotal Film" and the "secrets bleeding to untold families" and "lovers in flight over the gravesite" of "The Enemy." Here. There. Everywhere.
And it wouldn't work if the band had brought in former Cars frontman and Big Name Producer Ric Ocasek to record the album, as it did on Do the Collapse. He would have sanded down the rough edges, multitracked them into oblivion. Yes, he would have.