Review: Guided By Voices – Earth Man Blues [Rockathon]

Today marks the release of the 33rd album from Dayton, OH indie legends, Guided By Voices and the 10th in 4 years from the lineup of Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, Kevin March, Mark Shue, Bobby Bare Jr., and producer Travis Harrison. Now that we’ve dispensed of the statistics let’s dig into the utter magnificence of Earth Man Blues. The album is tied together with the loose concept of a rock opera that takes place at the John H. Morrison Elementary School and consists of material that Robert Pollard wrote in recent years but, for one reason or another never included in the recent recording sessions or the bands output, until now.

On my very first listen I was struck by each of the 15 tracks that occupy Earth Man Blues, some of which I connected with immediately while others took more time to reveal themselves. I’m not sure if I would classify the album as a grower due to Pollard’s striking pop sensibilities throughout, but on each and every listen I discover something new and enthralling to latch onto. Let us skip the comparison to the bands revered back catalog and allow Earth Man Blues stand on it’s merit. Made Man opens the album with a bit of swagger and manages to make full use of all 1:12 seconds, while making a strong case for brevity with  twin guitar crunch, pop hooks, and a gorgeous albeit concise string section. Dirty Kid School is a minor curveball in terms of the GBV aesthetic, but when the rockabilly punk rave up hits, it hits hard. The track contains one of a few effective interludes found throughout the LP which adds an element of psychedelia and experimentation before Gillard’s insanely catchy riff returns and the listener has been transported back to the hallways of the aforementioned learning institution. Elsewhere, the band delivers one of the albums high water marks with Lights Out in Memphis (Egypt), a progish number, skillfully balanced with some the album’s finest pop hooks. That track also provides another how the hell does he do it moment, with the line “trained alien sales reps for aluminum can Siberia” Earth Man Blues flies by in no time and before you know it you’re already 7 songs in before another EMB stand out and my current favorite of the set, Sunshine Girl Hello arrives with an intro and coda that sounds as if culled from one of Bob’s suitcases during a Monkees/Herman Hermits phase, then quickly switching gears with chugging chords, sublime leads, and a gorgeous chorus. When the band returns to the Live setting I imagine Ant Repellent will be a new staple of the set, the track features a sinister chorus/chant, a Mark Shue buoyant bassline with Pollard delivering a stunning vocal hook near the end of the track. The one-two punch of the strange yet stunning, How Can A Plumb Be Perfected? a song that exudes Pollard’s penchant for stirring melancholic ruminations and Child’s Play, a track that to my ears could’ve worked just as well as an opening and ends the album on a euphoric high note.

Who would blame you dear reader, if you greeted the above claims with a raised brow or even a bit of skepticism, because although this current run that started with 2017’s August By Cake has been quite impressive, with each new release there are inevitable claims from casual and obsessive fans alike, myself include who suggest that GBV’s latest offering is to be its creators finest hour. But, with Earth Man Blues there is something different at work, something completely compelling and unique, more so than any of their recent recordings. Although this isnt an album of reinvention its one that finds an artist 38 years into an venerable career continuing to push limits and create vital art on his own terms. Earth Man Blues is a singular and exquisite artistic achievement which further illuminates Robert Pollard’s unparallel songcraft as well as GBV’s adroit musicianship.

Earth Man Blues is available now through Rockathon

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