Shuffle: Is Robert Pollard is rock music’s Picasso?

After visiting a Picasso exhibition my friend said ‘I didn’t realise he could actually draw’. What she meant by this was that, to her, drawing and painting is a naturalistic representation of the world; she mistook Picasso’s genius for a technical limitation. She could not conceive of Picasso actually wanting and choosing to paint the way that he did. Similar arguments abound whenever you talk to anyone (even rabid fans) about Robert Pollard (and mainly Guided by Voices). You know the kind of thing – GBV would be huge if they just cut out the nonsense, and Robert Pollard would be more highly rated as an artist if only he had an editor.

These opinions come from an assumption that orthodox rock/pop music, the three-minute pop song is rock music in its pure naturalistic form, something that everyone aspires to, and what everyone is trying to do is to write the perfect pop song. Pollard has of course done this many times in his career – every GBV, solo record, or collaboration has those beautiful moments of pop perfection: the sweet sugary confections, the anthems for everyone who has picked up an electric guitar, bass, or drums, and jammed in garages or basements. It is simply not understandable that someone who could write such gems as ‘When You Motor Away’ would want to also stink the place up with some experimental shit.

That is the orthodox position and there is another that sees the more experimental side as a setting for the gems, that the more easily digested nuggets are all the sweeter because they are surrounded by songs that are substantially less palatable. I do not subscribe to either of these viewpoints. Picasso was at points in his career criticised for working in a multiplicity of styles; it was a problem for them that he did not have one definitive style and that he was so prolific.

It is the same with Pollard, in my personal library. I have 825 songs by GBV and the various side-projects. I am apt to always buy the latest record (and by the way ‘Earth Man Blues’ the latest is fantastic). The sheer volume persuades some that the quality cannot always be of a standard and of course, not everything succeeds. However, that is the point. It is wonderful to see a man so full of creativity, so willing to take chances and so absorbed in the art that he is creating that he does not measure himself by sales. That sheer untrammelled lust to explore to try new things, to be awkward and pursue not adulation but expression, is a beautiful thing.

The Picasso comparison is ridiculous in many ways but in others, it makes so much sense. Both are in some ways associated with Surrealism, Picasso with its birth and Pollard with his lyrical flourishes. Both are also associated with collage, again Picasso as a progenitor and Pollard with his cut and paste album covers, and the way that some of the songs might start out as one thing but end as another. Pollard has so many ideas and such an urge to produce that not all ideas are followed through to what you might think of as a finished state. Listen to GBV and associated projects on shuffle and the breadth of the invention becomes quite staggering.

All of the videos featured here (except ‘When You Motor Away‘) have played whilst I’m writing this and whilst my subject did seem fanciful when I first thought of it (who else could sing ‘My Museum Needs and Elevator‘?) the more I consider it and the more I think about Pollard and his work the more I think it might actually be true. I don’t want to diminish the contributions of Pollard’s co-conspirators, especially, Tobin Sprout, but, Pollard really is a unique talent. There is so much more than the fabled blend of power pop, punk, psychedelia, and prog: there is a synthesis that bends them into something unique. And isn’t that what Picasso did, he moved art forwards.

There is surely no objection to us featuring Pollard and GBV here on AUK – their sound is Americana even if the usual signifiers are missing. It is Cosmic Americana in the way that it brings together genres and creates something different. Some of my favourite albums and songs of all time are from Pollard’s catalogue, some of the latter being etched into my brain like the messages on vinyl records. If my memory ever starts to go, I feel the last thing that will remain will be the entirety of ‘Under the Bushes Under the Stars‘. And the song below I dedicate to Pollard in all his prolific glory.

About David Cowling 142 Articles
Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.
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Great article, and agree about the Picasso comparison. (Also as a long-time fan, I am obliged to note that the song title is just ‘Motor Away’. 🙂 )