Back in what now feels like the early 1890s, I enjoyed both the pain and the pleasure of interviewing that decade’s iteration of Guided by Voices upstairs at the Duchess of York in Leeds. As I arrived, the band were soundchecking with ‘Your Name is Wild’ (from the 1996 album, Under the Bushes Under the Stars) – which led to me opening the interview with, “You just played Your Name is Wild – and my name is Wild!” They looked at me as if a stone had just learned to talk. “My name is Peter Wild,” I said more quietly. “And?” Tobin Sprout (now former member but regarded as part of the ‘classic’ GBV line-up) said. The interview didn’t get better from there.
Some 35-plus years later, here we are with the 35th Guided by Voices album (not including the box sets of unreleased material and the solo Robert Pollard albums and the compilation albums and the live albums and the soundtrack albums and the singles), the rather magnificently named Crystal Nuns Cathedral. The first question that needs answering is, of course, what kind of Guided by Voices album is this? Over the years, we’ve had ‘out there’ psychedelic skronkfests and powerpop extravaganzas and crunchy rock riffage and just about all points in between and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s (shall we say) less good. What else can you expect when a band has over 1500 songs? Crystal Nuns Cathedral is about as straightforward as a Guided by Voices album gets: the aforementioned crunchy rock riffage is present and correct and Pollard is on top form. In another universe (a fairer universe, a universe in which, say, the 171 billionaires in the UK would be busy being taxed to cover the cost of living crisis) this album would be all you hear, pouring out of every car window, piped in every elevator, the soundtrack to every supermarket visit.
12 songs, the vast majority of which never get to three minutes, the vast majority of which fade out just as guitarist Doug Gillard starts doing interesting things (Pollard, whilst being a great theatric himself, has never had time for theatrics), never outstaying their welcome, always thrilling and surprising you in some fashion. Immediate highlights (by which we mean: songs that leap out the gate (scissorkicking like a bastard, as Pollard is wont to do live), shake your hand and clamber up into the attic of songs that you feel you’ve always known): instant power pop classics ‘Come North Together’, ‘Mad River Man’ and the title track – all GBV classics, all as good as anything they have ever done. Those three alone are worth the price of admission. But you know there are also songs here that are slower to reveal their pleasures, ‘growers not showers’ that flirt with the edgier side of Pollard’s craft – ‘Birds in the Pipe’, ‘Eyes of Your Doctor’ and album opener, ‘Eye City’, we’re looking at you.
All told, it’s a barnstorming showing from Pollard and the boys. If you are new to Guided by Voices, you could do a whole lot worse than start here. If you are an occasional GBV tourist, occasionally stopping by amidst the deluge of new stuff, know that Crystal Nun’s Cathedral is very definitely worth a visit and if you’re a fan, like us, a completist (if such a thing as a GBV completist is even possible), hell – you’re already crawling all over this, am I right?
Words by Pete Wild