[No. 01 in a Series]
Please Be Honest, the latest Guided By Voices record, opens with a dirge. Over spare, unsteady acoustic-guitar chords, Robert Pollard slurs an ode to the otherworld:
The unborn called:
they miss you.
The verse ends, but despite a slight quickening of the guitar line the song, called “My Zodiac Companion,” can’t muster the energy to drag itself out of its minor-chord funk. No chorus arrives, no lift. The song seems fated, like so many other Guided By Voices songs before it, to collapse in on itself. Entropy echoes through the lyrics of the second verse:
The stones are dead,
the different fathers.
The vulgar souls,
equal in torture,
fly torn apart.
We’re among damaged spirits, beings coming undone, a patrimony in cosmic disarray. It’s as if the fate even of angels is to be ripped to pieces in time’s whirlwind. “We are stardust,” sang Joni Mitchell in “Woodstock,” her loopy 1970 mash note to a hippie Eden, and the opening of “My Zodiac Companion” feels like Pollard’s belated, despairing rebuttal. Dust is dust, whatever its origin, and to be fashioned of it is a horror.
“The stones are dead.” But also: “The Stones are dead.” (The submerged allusions to the Rolling Stones in the first verse — “aftermath,” “miss you” — rise to the surface at the start of the second.) Pollard is often thought of as a primitivist, an avatar of lo-fi, but he’s the opposite of that, really: a formalist. His formalism is not the comforting formalism of the traditionalist but the anxious formalism of the modernist. His challenge as an artist is to take classical forms (in Pollard’s case, the song and album forms created by rock bands — “the different fathers” — during the second half of the 1960s), dismantle them, and remake them into new things that fulfill his own aesthetic and emotional intentions. He follows Ezra Pound’s command: “Renovate, dod gast you, renovate!” The terrible question that runs through “My Zodiac Companion,” and all of Please Be Honest, is whether renovation is still possible.
An electric guitar enters the mix, shimmering with distortion. There’s a clatter of pots-and-pans drumming. The song swells, tentatively, toward a chorus. “Come back to me,” Pollard calls out into the chaos, “my zodiac companion.” There’s no reply. The muse remains silent.
The chorus deflates, and the drunk returns with his loosely fingered acoustic. The clock spins backward. We’re among children in a nursery, the antechamber of youth, awaiting a sign, harboring a “nebulous wish.” The kids in their innocence play adult games — of war, of chance, of marriage, of faith:
with which we play-fight,
sixes and sevens,
saucers and cups —
It’s clear by now that Pollard is leading us on a quest, guiding us in the direction of some clarifying origin, some source. The path we’re on is similar to the one Robert Frost took in his great poem “Directive”:
First there’s the children’s house of make believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
It’s a quest — in search of the as yet unbroken home — that runs through much of Pollard’s work. It was there, desperately so, in one of the most famous of his songs, “Game of Pricks”:
I climb up on the house,
weep to water the trees,
and when you come calling me down
I put on my disease.
Among the playthings in the playhouse of the children — the saucers and cups, the guitars and drums — Pollard finds what he’s after. The random stars come together into patterns, coalesce into zodiacal signs. The tentative chords turn into power chords. The song delivers its hook, becomes a swirling, sad anthem. Pollard is on stage, looking out over an acre of pumping fists. He is more than an orbital ghost. He is, as his fathers were, a star.
After two minutes and twelve seconds, “My Zodiac Companion” reaches its terminal chord. The dust is universal, and the song, as long as it lasts, is the only shield.
Image: Detail of “47 Holes Randomly Punched and 15 Replaced” by Robert Pollard.