Stewart Lee listens to Sweating The Plague

Record in stores on October 25 - Preorder here.

I’ve been walking two hours a day since March to beat middle-aged inertia, pacing myself exclusively to a playlist of 3,148 songs featuring Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard, in his various guises. GBV sets me on fire! The Regent’s Canal towpath melts beneath me and Angel’s pounded pavements evaporate.

For the uninitiated, Pollard’s prolific but private basement four-track recording habit, Guided by Voices, finally found fame on the surface world in the early nineties, by which time the Dayton Ohio schoolteacher was already in his mid-thirties with thousands of completed songs stored in a suitcase.

As a ‘70s schoolboy, Pollard performed the usual adolescent music fan rituals, scribbling exercise books full of song lyrics and designing imaginary album covers for fictional bands influenced by the classic rock, British invasion and early prog sounds he assimilated as a little kid in the ‘60s. And then he grew up, and just carried on.

Since 1983, Pollard has been putting his childhood fantasies into action through Guided by Voices, the band he wills periodically into being in various incarnations, a bricolage recreation of millions of remembered rock moves, realised with the assistance of a shifting set of acolytes, and an incurable addiction to the onanistic vice of songwriting.

As I hit the Southern stretch of The New River path those 3148 Pollard songs are endlessly recombining themselves as random and unrepeatable new patterns, in jarring audio-collages accidentally attuned their creator’s painstaking cut and paste aesthetic.

Pollard’s overflowing artesian well of phonetically seductive phrases are fashioned into thousands of one-in-a-million pop hooks, and then tossed away without any apparent effort, scattered like great careless handfuls of abundant seed.  Unleash The Large Hearted Boy! Do Not Devastate! Impossible Octopus!

Guided By Voices is now an unlikely candidate for the most perfect rock band of all time, whilst at the same time being a thoughtful reflection on what a rock bands is, a fantasy that becomes a fact.

3148 songs. Thirty-six years of sound kaleidoscope into an invisibly seamed stream with no obvious entry or exit points, the sound born fully formed and already on its trajectory.  By Stoke Newington I’m blitzkrieged.

Pollard may be endlessly experimenting with the formal limits of the rock song but, at the same time, rooms full of drunken fans in their thousands are chanting “G B V!”, making his conceptual exercise pungently real.

Guided by Voices’ second album of 2019, Warp and Woof, welded boom-box recordings and on-the-hoof impromptu sessions into a coherently collaged collection. In contrast, their third album of this year, and the band’s 29th, experiments playfully with stadium sized fidelity and uncharacteristically impactful arrangements.  

Ever since producer Travis Harrison worked on Pollard and long-term guitarist Doug Gillard’s 2011 Lifeguards album Waving At The Astronauts, his approach to Guided by Voices was that, counterintuitively, that he didn’t want it to sound homemade. Sweating The Plague is constructed as a classic 12 song album experience, made to be played loud.

The grinding techtonic plate guitars of Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. anchor the opener, “Downer”, and set out Sweating The Plague’s stall, before the chunky indie-pop surge of "Street Party”, and "Mother’s Milk Elementary”, a typical Pollard attempt to squeeze the multiple movements of some early ‘70s epic into a two and a half minute package, complete with Mellotron-hued outro. Bob had literally dreamed the piece into being, waking with the different sections of a song on an album his subconscious mind had imagined him purchasing humming in his head, and running downstairs to record it. 

“Heavy Like The World"’s subliminally seductive earworm hook gives way to "Ego Central High", a stadium-filling slice of hairy riffing; "The Very Second” sounds like a produced realisation of the chopped-together compositions of GBV’s late eighties output; “Tiger On Top" splices coffee-shop acoustic moments into extended splurges of hard rock swagger, the vibe bleeding through into the similarly strutting "Unfun Glitz", before the Southern jangle-rock sound of “Your Cricket Is Rather Unique" spins long-term listeners back to the aesthetic of the band’s 1986 debut, Forever Since Breakfast.

Immortals valedictory anthemic upsurge plateaus out into the acoustic chimes of "My Wrestling Days Are Over" before the uncharacteristically substantial closer, "Sons Of The Beard", posits a kind of blue-collar plaid-shirt progressive rock. The multiple tidal phases hoary progenitors like Janus or Gnidrolog spread over the twenty minutes in 1971, are here concertinaed down into a tight four minutes forty-nine, Pollard finally finding a place in GBV itself for influences formerly side-lined into his now abandoned Circus Devils project.

Sweating The Plague is an uncharacteristically concise rock’n’roll record,  with lush gems tucked in amongst the hooks and hits, and with a sprinkling of prog rock moves. And, as usual with Pollard, the album is sequenced as a whole, a coherent collection, rather than a selection of downloadable content baubles.

Being a fan of Pollard, and Guided by Voices, can feel like standing in a ticker tape parade and reaching out to grab at stray releases as the endless flurry of output from the Needmore Songs publishing house billows around you.  But here’s twelve compatible nuggets of Pollard content in one handy package, all boxed up and ready to go.


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