A year ago, Robert Pollard, the singer for the rock band Guided by Voices, placed his fingers to my lips. My girlfriend at the time had designed a poster for their show at the Fonda Theatre, so we headed to Los Angeles two nights after catching the band’s euphoric set at the Rio in Santa Cruz. I found the second night’s concert to somewhat lack the spark of the first, mostly thanks to a relatively disengaged audience. Regardless, before and after the show I got to spend a few jittery minutes with the members of what I would have described to you at the time as my favorite band. As a small party gathered backstage after the show, Pollard, visibly blasted on the Cuervo Gold and Coors Lite consumed onstage, did the aforementioned fingers-on-lips thing and mumbled something to me that I couldn’t make out.
If you’re not familiar with Pollard, a Google search for any piece on him will find the writer calling him “prolific,” rightfully mentioning the unbelievable ocean of songs he’s created throughout his life — more than 2,000 legally registered at the time of this writing. You could restrict yourself to the period of 2012 to 2014 and find that Guided by Voices produced six post-reunion albums (the band broke up in 2004 and reunited in 2010), and even that just scratches the surface of what Pollard has created with other projects and by himself at the time. But thinking back to that show at the Fonda, I distinctly remember Bob’s enthusiasm when new songs such as “Vote for Me, Dummy” (from last year’s Motivational Jumpsuit) popped out of their voluminous setlist, and a coerced, resentful vibe when it was time to perform the tunes that put him on the map two decades ago, such as “Gold Star for Robot Boy” (from their 1994 breakthrough Bee Thousand). This was telling.
That following September, Guided by Voices disbanded again. The news came without warning, a mere few hours after a social media blast announced an extension of their U.S. tour. When I think about this now, I believe a creative fire of such potency as Pollard’s can’t burn to its full potential when it is forced into lockstep with the dull motions of a nostalgic rock band reunion. Sure, the money was probably better on the other side. But I imagine that he’d reached his limit with the GbV experience, and his intuition told him to simply pull the plug. Maybe it was a calculated decision from the beginning. I don’t know.
In either case, GbV’s last call turned out to be less an ending than a necessary shedding of old skin. The first dispatch from a freed-up Bob was that there’d be a debut album from a new band called Ricked Wicky, tellingly named after a band idea he’d had in his teens, long before world tours and critically acclaimed records on iconic indie labels. Released in February, Ricked Wicky’s debut, I Sell the Circus , felt renewed, with ex-GbV members bolstered by an exciting new guitarist named Nick Mitchell. Pollard sounded comfortable, with his feet firmly planted in his beloved prog and Who’s Next (1971), crooning about guts and needles and Oz over the lumpy, odd strain of classic rock he continues to perfect. But shortly after the very satisfying I Sell the Circus, there was a low-key announcement of a new solo album, his 21st, but his first since GbV’s sign-off, called Faulty Superheroes.
Pollard has relied on a collagist, postmodern approach to his lyrics throughout his career, wherein linear meanings are mostly out the window and replaced with mosaic. Yet whenever I explore his discography, I find small motifs that he clings to on even his most impenetrable work, maybe just things on his mind at the time that wormed their way in. Guided by Voices’ icy, glowering final album, Cool Planet (2014), is full of churches, beasts, paranoia and forbidden zones. Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996) is preoccupied with offices, deadlines, tedium. The childlike logic of Bee Thousand was informed by Pollard’s experiences as a fourth grade teacher.
But the lyrics of the new Faulty Superheroes carry a dreamlike, humid atmosphere, almost like a Gabriel García Márquez novel. There’s a hot, burning sun and mysterious rivers in Mexico. There’s coffee and tea. The very last track is this haunting little nocturne on acoustic guitar that I can’t shake, about a helpful tropical bird who’ll answer your phone. Furthermore, there are tunes about creativity, intelligence, making yourself greater. “You Only Need One” refers to a hero, your own hero, which is its own beautiful thought. And it’s all set to the most fleshed-out, glimmering, all-the-way-there power pop he’s ever made. At age 57, and still creating a body of work that mirrors life itself — full of as many errors, bad decisions and potholes as inspiring, unearthly triumphs — he’s truly all-in now. As a fan, it’s incredibly moving to observe this in real time.
If you really “only need one,” I could do worse than the self-described Fading Captain. As a 23-year-old guy pursuing several musical projects, I naturally face self-doubt, tough decisions, and attempted backseat driving from others. At moments where I feel like I could use some guidance, I’ve always returned to Robert Pollard’s attitude, his aesthetic integrity, those weird and winding melodies. When I’m stuck on how to approach a vocal part for a Hollow Sunshine song, I think of how Pollard could turn a song into an anthem with one momentous, soaring lyric, over and over, the white-hot rock & roll essence. And those lines echo through my mind just when I need them. “Pass the word — the chicks are back.” “Why don’t you just drive away?”
More than anything, Bob Pollard’s life and work remind me every day that there will always be more than what meets the eye — and that “more” is the human drive to creativity. I think of him deep in his thirties, before any success came his way with Guided by Voices, about to settle squarely into his teaching career and new family. The most ordinary man in the world with an extraordinary gift just below the surface, who was able to dredge it up for all to see and define his life by rock & roll. Not only this, he respected this gift enough to know when to leave his most lasting, successful band behind and continue his own development. Faulty Superheroes is his reinvention, and a testament to the power of prioritizing the creative impulse over any other factor in the game.
I still don’t know what Pollard was trying to say to me that night at the Fonda — chances are he wasn’t out to lay some inebriated Zen koan on me — but I’ve honestly been taught by him more than I can express. Of course, I’m far from alone in this. In a 2013 piece for the Talkhouse about Pollard’s album Jack Sells the Cow, Andrew W.K. pondered the nature of Pollard’s remarkable abilities, even whether he “struggles with the explosions of creativity surging through him.” I, too, feel the deep sense of mystery that swirls around Bob Pollard and his thousands of songs about seemingly everything under the sun, and I can’t explain how he does what he does with any more clarity than anyone else. But I believe the answers are right there in Bob’s songbook. When I pay close attention to my favorite Guided by Voices song, “Motor Away,” a strong visualization appears. The very process of human creativity becomes a street to me — a speedway, really — running exactly parallel to this saddening, dull world we trudge through every day. It’s not an escape, but the travel is at an elated pace, one where every view is fully absorbed along the way for a greater experience. And it’s ready for Bob, you, me and everyone. Speed on.