Morgan Enos is a musician, essayist and music journalist specializing in classic rock. He records and performs as Other Houses and has bylines in Billboard, HuffPost, the Recording Academy, Vinyl Me, Please, TIDAL and more. He is also the co-founder and editor of North of the Internet, a series of conversations with creative people. He can be found at his website.
Guided by Voices are best-known as lo-fi’s beery savants, a hydrant of quirky songs and albums and breakneck live shows. But their best album, 1995’s Alien Lanes – which turns 25 this month — runs much deeper than a bottle of Miller Lite. To me, it’s about noting the seemingly insurmountable barrier around your life, screwing up your courage, and blasting through that sucker.
I say this because its most powerful songs, like “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Game of Pricks,” and “Motor Away,” have shepherded me through countless seasons of my life. Being married, living in East Coast suburbia, and doing journalism for a living was only made possible by a quick series of decisions that changed everything — chief among them moving from California to New York, a place I had never been to before, in 2016. And I don’t know I would have done that without Guided by Voices to coax me forward.
It’s hard to believe today, but GBV began as a weekend-warrior band — a valve for Robert Pollard, then a married schoolteacher in his mid-30s, to blow off steam in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. In 1991, after a mostly thankless eight years on the grind, the band released the terrific Propeller, designed to be their final album before Pollard hung up his spurs as a musician.
But that’s not what happened. As Matthew Cutter writes in his 2018 book Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices, then-bassist Greg Demos and childhood friend Pete Jamison went behind Pollard’s back and sent homespun copies to zines and distributors. One thing led to another, and before they knew it, the nervous garage band was flying coach to the Big Apple.
GBV, who hadn’t played live in seven years, was booked at CBGBs as the third act of four on a sticky Tuesday night. “I was so fucking scared,” Pollard said in the book. “I can’t even describe how scared I was. Blind fucking terror.” But with each one-minute wonder, the curly-topped teacher with a fake British accent swelled with confidence. By the end, Cutter writes, the audience was a sea of raised lighters. They were not the way they used to be.
I sort of had the opposite experience in NYC. Once I landed, I hit the ground running by forming a backing band and playing out as much as I could, but I was soon chastened by how much competition I was up against and how little compensation was out there. Unwilling to give up on my passion or to give up and go home, I decided to take an alternate route into the music world by writing for Billboard, Fortune and other publications.
During run-and-gun times early in my career, flailing through copywriting gigs in an unfamiliar metropolis with the rent due, I turned to Alien Lanes. I loved that Pollard and then-co-pilot Tobin Sprout never placated the listener with trite encouragements; instead, they always acknowledged the genuine possibility of failure. “We are the willing supporters,” Sprout announces on the wary ballad “Strawdogs.” “We’d like to know why everything is so unkind.”
Much more than its celebrated 1994 predecessor, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes is full of demoralizing adversaries: devil goats, rival gangs of seven-year-olds, and perfect angels that monitor your intentions. Between the fully-formed highlights, bratty, agitated throwaways “Pimple Zoo,” “Hit” and “Gold Hick” (all less than a minute long) materialize and flame out like intrusive thoughts.
But those grimmer moments merely orbit the most affirmative songs Pollard ever wrote. “Watch Me Jumpstart” dares Pollard’s enemies to watch him “bulldoze every bulldozer away.” The power-popping “Game of Pricks” rattles Pollard’s cage at liars and beguilers. And “Motor Away,” superficially a small-town escape anthem a la Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” gets its unique bite and power from considering that your critics and naysayers could be right.
Today, I’m happier than I’ve ever been at home in Hackensack, New Jersey, but sometimes, I get nervous that I drifted too far from everything. I miss old friends, old bands, and my late dad being around. Luckily, when I feel untethered from the space station, Pollard has a fight song for everyone. I return to so many of them: 1999’s “Do Something Real,” about cutting through the bullshit and establishing yourself. 2019’s “Heavy Like the World,” with its instruction to “Get some danger in your life and more ink in your tattoo.” And Alien Lanes from start to finish.
There’s a moment on the album — a transition, actually — that sums up its transformative qualities. “I hope to hell we hear the bell/To let us now go home,” Pollard frightfully whispers at the end of “(I Wanna Be a) Dumbcharger,” a list of temptations and implied threats. I know that feeling like the back of my hand — that you’ve waded so far into the lake that your feet aren’t touching the bottom. But it’s what happens next that really counts.
That doleful vignette gives way to “Game of Pricks,” which, for my and most other fans’ money, is the best song Pollard ever wrote. But more importantly, it was an insurance policy for Pollard — that this guy from nowheresville could be the second coming of Roger Daltrey, not one of a million aspiring rockers who failed to launch. It’s plucky; it’s stubborn; it’s scrappy. I’ve heard it hundreds of times and I’m not tired of it. “Game of Pricks” cuts down all the discouragements anyone could throw at Pollard or his larger-than-life vision of himself.
As I carry on in my current form as a journalist (who doesn’t forget to pick up a guitar), I hope I can continue to draw from that well of resiliency that Pollard did on Alien Lanes. Because unlike almost any album, I owe just about everything physically around me to it. “You can’t lie to yourself that it’s the chance of a lifetime,” Pollard warns on “Motor Away,” but for me, the implication of that line has always been utterly clear. Seize it anyway.