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The music of Guided by Voices - An Analysis

pointing finger Thranalysis >> Sun 17 April 2022 by Thran >> Last updated 21 Jul 2023

Guided by Vices?

Guided By Voices are a band who've never been able to break into the big lane; that's a good thing. There's an understated brilliance to their work. It isn't for everyone, but those who understand will be converted at the first listen. The band is notable because they accidentally invented lo-fi music when they ran out of money for recording studio time; they continued recording at home using a cassette recorder and everyone mistook that for being their style.

The band continues today, but I believe it was at its peak in 1994-1996 when it recorded the albums Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. At that time, the line up comprised Robert Pollard on vocals and guitars, Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell on guitars, Greg Demos on bass and Kevin Fennell manning the drums.

The chief lyricist and principal composer was Robert Pollard. He initially worked as a high school teacher while pouring all his spare time into the band. He was recording since before 1983, but it was only in 1994 that the band were really noticed with their seventh album "Bee Thousand", which is incidentally the greatest album ever recorded. After releasing this album they earned enough from making music so they could play and perform full time.

Was it such a big change for him? Robert Pollard swapped one roomful of listeners for another, one perhaps more receptive to his words than the other, his new audience somewhere where guitars and beer would be considered appropriate.

This article will consider GBV during those peak years. I notice running themes in all their work and have put them as best as I can below. Later articles will examine individual albums.

bee thousand director's cut


There is a straightforward sincerity in the lyrics; not moping or weeping, not begging, but the lyricist is being absolutely honest with his experiences. There is no controlled image here; no duplicity.

The words are upfront, sometimes surreal and very often metaphorical but never cryptic. The lyrics are just as immersive and demand your attention as much as the music does.

There is a constant stream of rich metaphor in the lyrics. Some of it lands immediately, others land later, yet other lines would take minds more enquiring than mine to decipher. I think were he born in Ancient Greece or Biblical Israel, Robert Pollard would've been an oracle or prophet. It is the same gift they both share. His lyrics are how such a prophet might speak as a man trying to make sense of our disjointed social fabric.

Common themes:

  • Tragic or dysfunctional women
  • Never quite fitting in
  • Warm surprises in the small things
  • Appreciating the better moments
  • A disgust at grandiosity
  • Trying to belong to the moment
  • Questioning one's nostalgia
  • Feeling adrift in the world

GBV the band in 1995

Musical style

The sincerity of the lyrics is matched in the music and production, which relies on the skill of the performance rather than dazzling you with punchy thrills. That is not to say that the performances lack thrill! Rather there are no cheap tricks and there is no glitzy over-production. This band is as low-fi as you will find while still sounding good, and that's what makes it sincere.

Their early to mid-90s work sounds like a big long jamming session. A band making music mostly for themselves. They are trying as much as they can within the limitations of their equipment, limitations of their budget (not much over $0) and limitations of their own creativity. The result is a timeless yet distinct style. It is difficult to put a date on it but it is unmistakable who made it.

Melodies, tone, pacing matches the lyrics perfectly. The music is very conscious, very cloistered.

Even the author's origins fit the music. He isn't from New York, he isn't from California, he's from Ohio. There is arguably the genuine and everyday America; it is not filled with wealth or diluted by the shallow novelty of Hollywood.

One's surroundings speak, and they shape us if enough time is spent listening. When I listen to this music, nothing feels pompous or feigned.

Robert pollard

Vocal style

Sincere but not mopey or gaudy. Robert Pollard is very far from the soft male "indie folk/Chris Martin" vocals that currently afflicts modern alternative music; he can hit the high notes without foregoing his masculinity.

Bob is solidly grounded, but can suddenly take us up into the air. We're not afraid because he seems at home up there as much as he is on the ground.

The production

This too is very self-consciously GBV. The band has a low-budget noisy sound, literally with line noise in the recordings at times. But I contend that the tape recorder is as much an instrument as the guitar.

The result is it sounds like you're closer to the songwriting process than bands with much more polish. This fits the down-to-earth sincerity that's a theme in the band's music and lyrics.

Many of the recordings sound like there was a rush to get ideas down before they are forgotten. Part of a creative process that's never finished. An endless effort to put things together. Something I find very relatable as a tinkerer who has drawers filled with forgotten electronic projects and computer folders filled with unpublished blog pieces.

Has any of this ever been "cleaned up" by remastering/full studio engineering? Yes, there are studio-produced versions of some songs on EPs, but the original is always kept available on the album. For selected songs you have the choice of Lo or Hi fi. This is very unlike some of the abusive modern production practices, where you're stuck with the deafening remaster or nothing. You can insist on the undiluted sound of lossless FLAC when listening to these 30 year old 4/track cassette recordings. Settle for nothing less than the true experience.

Interestingly, the band began with "proper" studio production on their earliest recordings in the 1980s. They only shifted to the low-fi sound later because of time and financial constraints put on the band. Their late 90s and present day work evidences more studio sheen. That's not always a bad thing, and we needn't weep because there was plenty of music bequeathed to us during this low-fi period.

tigerbomb album art

Living Live

The band is noted for their energetic live performances, even as Bob approaches his eighth decade. There's a story that's somewhat apocryphal, I may have misheard it while watching a live set on YouTube, but I'll share it anyway:

The band was mid-way through their set and enjoying beers when Robert had the idea to purchase pints of Miller for the faithful concert-goers who stood at the front row. As he was distributing them, he said "Wait, some of you look like you're under 21" - a bit illegal in the free country. So Bob quipped, "If anyone asks, say we were The White Stripes" and he continued distributing the pints.

Selected Lyrics

Buzzards and Dreadful Crows

The lifeblood, the lighthouse flashing
Sixteen chicks remain on watch
for the wheels to come rolling in
and they do...
Yes they always do
I'd be bored and disappointed if they didn't

Buzzards and dreadful crows
Right on the tip of my nose
They wait like cats and fly out
For the light in my eyes to die out
and it does...
Yes it always does
I'd be shocked and removed if it didn't

Buzzards and Dreadful Crows, Bee Thousand, 1994 [More] [Listen]

Game of Pricks

I've waited too long to have you
Hide in the back of me
I've cheated so long I wonder
How you keep track of me

You could never be strong
You can only be free
And I never asked for the truth
But you owe that to me

I've entered the game of pricks
With knives in the back of me
Can't call you or on you no more
When they're attacking me

I'll climb up on the house
Weep to water the trees
And when you come calling me down
I'll put on my disease

Game of Pricks, Alien Lines, 1995 [More] [Listen]

Kisses to the Crying Cooks

Onion lady blows her precious prose
And so it goes
Kisses to the crying cooks
Their beaks in books
With baited hooks

And days away from your army
And spend with whimsy kings and slaves
A girl of God becomes a cash flower
A catalogue of gardens and graves

Traveller's diagram
For where I am
From where I am
Pictorial visual codes
It overloads, it all explodes

Kisses To The Crying Cooks, Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP, 1994. [Listen]

My Impression Now

You told me you'd give your soul to the crowd
You run to the edge of the warzone
You're finding out that it's way too late
To be happy around your friends
You changed your head
And made your bed
Through time, circumstances and medicines
You lied a lot
Created a plot
To escort you safely away

You told me you found a way to escape
Through silence and not a suggestion
To apply it all to everyday life
But it can't find the connection
The magic lens
You contacted friends
Who just never seem to be with you
Flying up on a paper cup
They land to s-sailing away

My impression now
My impression now
Stand on the edge of the ledge
Jump off cause nobody cares

My Impression Now, Fast Japanese Spin Cycle EP, 1994. [Listen]

Quality of Armor

Oh yeah going to drive my car
Oh yeah going to go real far
As we were sitting here in the final stages
Staring at the screen as the battle rages
You were finding God in the dictionary
Taking photographs in the cemetery

The worst offence is intelligence
the best defence is belligerence
How we stalemate our predicament
governed by tissue and filament

Oh yeah going to drive my car
Oh yeah going to go real far
Beyond a shadow of a doubt
Beyond the power of your clout
Beyond the secrets of this world
beyond the Montezuma Halls 

Quality of Armor, Propeller, 1993. [Listen]

Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox

You must be willing just to ride along with me
You must be happy just to do the job for free
Yours for the taking if you follow simple rules
Such acts of subservience were never taught in schools

Spit me out from your cosmos
Draft me into your troops
Set me up for the knockdown
You can watch
And I'll be back when it's over

Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox, Propeller, 1993. [More] [Listen]

Note: Lyrics are property of the respective copyright holder and reproduced for educational purposes only. This is a non-commercial website.

gbv airkick

The meaning of some songs considered

Airshow 88

Airshow 88 opens with the recording of a domestic argument, followed by TV adverts, followed by a trudged intro. Given Pollard's penchant for frugality and preference for instrumental noises, we must give special attention to such an inclusion on the tape. I think it speaks of a child's perspective on a dysfunctional family, where there is much conflict in the home interrupted only by television and the false hopes offered by consumerism.

It is a juxtaposition of the promises of consumerism, where the happy and prosperous image is actually an effort to hide the real truth inside deeply frayed homes. Going out to spend and improve the image of the home is ironic, when the home in truth conceals misery and conflict. Or applied more broadly, the nation as a whole tells itself that it is happy and prosperous when that's actually far from the truth.

From "Same Place the Fly Got Smashed", 1990. [Listen]

Non Absorbing

Non Absorbing sounds like one calling from the distance, the music is like echoes sounding the depths. The song speaks of a difficulty in seeing oneself clearly and great doubt whether one is seen clearly by others. This feeds the fear of never being truly known and understood; a prerequisite for true love. Indeed, this point is driven in by the pounding drums that slowly build through the song, like the singer is trying to break through an impassable brick wall that separates him from his subject.

From "Vampire on Titus", 1993. [Listen]

I am a Scientist

The song "I am a Scientist" contains the most straightforward metaphors I've found in the catalogue, but is far from deficient for it. It speaks of the need to be multi-disciplinarian when pursuing self-knowledge, and the great difficulty and even impossibility of the task.

The music video features scenes of neighbourhoods, a sports pitch and derelict building. These are all filmed in the songsmith's home city of Dayton, Ohio. This indicates a need to go back to one's roots to understand oneself, or perhaps suggesting we're never able to fully outgrow home.

From "Bee Thousand", 1994. [Listen (Alternative EP version)]

If we wait

"There's some food upon the table, boys" opens the song. This one tells the story of someone trying to fly above the world because he carries an unbearable burden inside himself. The food upon the table represents the carnal, it contrasts with the trapped soul. When he shares his conflict, his companions are unmoved, and are content with mere food on the table despite his urgings that there's more to life.

"You know that if we wait for our time, we will soon be dead". He needs to act and make something of his life even when he doesn't feel complete.

"I don't care any more... I'll be with you in the morning, boys". I think this is a sarcastic jibe as he prepares to leave. They don't understand his conflict or share his ambition. Next morning, some time in the future, he will be ready to join them.

He leaves them with the pointed question: "If you could be anything that you want to be, do you think that you would want to be who you see in the mirror?" He doesn't want to see them when he looks in the mirror.

From "Sunfish Holy Breakfast", 1996. [Listen (Apple Music)]

Hey Spaceman

Hey Spaceman opens with idyllic sounding bars weighed down by a slight sombre undertone. It is hearkening back to when visiting a friend's house across the road felt like an adventure, it felt like we're really about to go to space. The small world is always much larger to a child, like how the vastness of space appears to an adult.

From "Devil Between My Toes", 1987. [Listen]

Note: These are just the tiniest selection of their vast catalogue. I haven't even began to tap into Bob's work and all its implications here. Don't take this as signifying all his works, merely a selection. I have more to say and it will be said later... these sounds really strike the soul in a way that one blog post cannot express.

Selected Music Videos


For all those times you've finished an album and wished there was more, this band answers that prayer. Quite generously.

We've only considered a selection of their work here. Robert Pollard is named as the author of almost 2,500 songs. GBV have 35 official album releases, with many other compilations and EPs. I wonder whether most artists have as many songs and is he the only one who has shared so much.

I'll say this prodigious sharing isn't for every songwriter, but from Bob & Co. it is a gift. Many bands have back catalogues of album outtakes that deserve their place in the memory hole, but behold, here is the exception! Yes, everything GBV have done isn't always good, that would be impossible. That said, the hits outnumber the misses and their average is above many bands I've heard.

A personal note in closing

I have spent countless hours listening and searching. I can say for certain this is the band I've been seeking all my life. I'm only too grateful that Bob chose to record more than any mortal will ever have time to devour. Perhaps that's just another part of the act; these vague and hazy forces reaching from eternity, something universal that compels one to create and to speak.

Moreover, I don't think I can start a band now. GBV are much the sound I'd wish to create, and Pollard's lyrics say many of the things I'd want to say, but better. This is fine, because I still get the music anyway even if it isn't me making it.

Nestled deeply in the lyrics and the music is a deep examination of the human soul. Like all great art, familiarity with it is familiarity with the greatest themes that we all understand. For those of us who are willing to take such a plunge and examine the human condition, there are no bands I know who would be better company than Guided By Voices. For those of us who aren't, you probably won't find your sound here.

I want more

  • You can still see their old website from the golden era of their music.
  • Visit the GBV DB to delve into the depths.
  • Buy Bee Thousand on Vinyl
  • Buy Bee Thousand on Vinyl again, should your first one get scratched
  • Buy me the Bee Thousand Director's Cut on vinyl and I'll write more of this, if you read that as "I want more of your writing".

Tags for this writ:

music, gbv, guided-by-voices, lyricism,

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