“Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”
-Edmund Hillary after the first complete ascent of Mount Everest
To follow Robert Pollard and his long-running, ever-shifting rock & roll band Guided by Voices is to stand under an avalanche – of songs, releases, side projects, three-hour shows, drunken bon mots – and love every second of it. It’s not for the casual observer or the faint of heart. Perhaps exempting Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, it’s tough to think of another discography so thoroughly soaked in life, full of songs about everything under the sun. Andrew W.K. may have said it best that one can “only listen to Robert Pollard music and be super well-stocked with tunes for a long time.” August by Cake is not only an album but an accomplishment; it’s the one-hundredth album from this rather stupendous songwriter. It’s soaked in victory, gratitude, and awe for the gift of music.
Cake is also the band’s first double LP, and their swing at a classic double-album like the Who’s Tommy (1969) or Quadrophenia (1973). The influence – and shadow – of the Who on Guided by Voices cannot be overstated, and it would seem that Cake’s opening songs salute the group. The sensational opener “5° on the Inside” is a perfect rip of The Who Sell Out’s “Armenia City in the Sky” – followed by a brief commercial for an absurdist product called “Generox Gray®,” which could be a nod to Sell Out’s fake radio jingles for Heinz Baked Beans and Odorono. And then, thirty songs to go. Oh, that avalanche.
Cake really picks up steam when songs from Pollard’s bandmates – bassist Mark Shue, guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr., and drummer Kevin March – start to pop up. Reportedly, the guys got the memo that they were to come up with their own compositions for Cake almost overnight before leaving on a tour leg. And whether due to the pressure, excitement or urge to simply impress the boss, each one is a knockout. Each member contributes two to three songs to the program, and listening to Gillard’s glorious, power-popping “Goodbye Note” or Bare’s ode to the boys’ club “High Five Hall of Famers,” it’s fun to mentally put yourself in their shoes. What if your favorite band asked you to write a song that would be on their album forever – oh, and by the way, you have until tomorrow morning?
The other guys are over the moon to just be part of the team, but Pollard’s contributions display an uncommon sense of wisdom and wonder – the moment where you stop and take it all in. His language has become more encompassing, eternal. “We liken the sun to perfect lightning,” he sings in “We Liken The Sun,” like he just blew the dust off a scroll from the Bronze Age. Elsewhere, “Packing the Dead Zone” makes a grocery list of detritus and distractions, where “Philosophical zombies/gymnasium rats/negative Twitters” are all shipped away for disposal. The song speaks to a series of lessons that have popped up throughout Pollard’s work. Trust your instincts. Cut through the bullshit. Do something real.
As Cake reaches its finish line, the mood feels more like a panicked spiritual search than a victory party, a question mark rather than an explanation point. The final song, “Escape to Phoenix” contains some of the most beguiling verses in Pollard’s songbook: “If you can see me, I’m too close/Pick it up now, double your time.” And that’s a final lesson for us. Pollard was able to reach this tremendous achievement of one hundred albums only by breaking the creative filter, by exercising complete devotion to the service of music. That’s a way to break free from our stupid world as described in “Packing the Dead Zone.” That’s rock & roll as heaven on Earth. That’s reaching the zenith of the mountain, exerted, but head held high. Knock the bastard off, he did.