What’s your favorite debut album by an artist, ever? How about a sophomore album? Well, Robert Pollard has released one hundred albums, culminating in August by Cake (2017). Yet, he miraculously still has more to say with his one hundred and first. How Do You Spell Heaven is revelatory less for its sound than its spirit. It’s almost like it took that whole mind-boggling ocean of albums for Pollard’s long-running band to finally coalesce into a brotherhood – one with a common mission of rock.
Is the mission successful? Just to show you, let’s observe this unprecedented object for what it is: the one hundred and first album on Rockathon Records. While August by Cake represented the alphabet’s opening letters – it’s ABC – this one is officially nicknamed “Rock 101.” Which is cute, but also apt. While this year’s August by Cake was a giddy reintroduction to the group, Guided by Voices hasn’t had this tight, focused energy in a few albums. Heaven doesn’t break a ton of new ground, but it’s all warm strums and crackling drums. It’s a super-cohesive new argument for any fan of rock & roll who hasn’t been jumped into the cult yet.
While Cake spilled over with horns and beery sing-a-longs and lead vocals by every member, Heaven steps out of that celebratory zone. Gone are the additions by the side-guys; it’s just Pollard at the mic here. And song by song, there are all kinds of disreputable characters to face down: “The Birthday Democrats” and “Cretinous Number Ones” and somebody deemed “King 007.” One hundred and one albums in, he’s still not out of the woods from his internal universe of enemies.
But Pollard’s got a fresh gang of musicians behind him – one that never leaves him wanting or hanging. He can sing something fretful like, “I dream of drinking!” and there’s slashing handclaps and a killer line from guitarist Doug Gillard to smack him out of it and take his keys. The excitement continues right up to “Just to Show You,” a gorgeous rocker that falls right in with Pollard’s tradition of the “quixotic, world-weary album closer.” And there’s truth in the title, as typified by the album cover, where Pollard beholds the light. His music has always seemed to say, “I don’t know where I’m getting these thousands of perfect songs, but I think I might have an idea. Have a drink. Come and listen.”
And while we’re probably going to be promised another Guided by Voices album before the mail-lady comes, one could have worse dispatches from the Eternal Muse.