Your Earwhig Is Truly Magnificent, Sir

A favorite of Qanon and the eye-emoji crowd

Our first post when we moved this site from the primitive wastes of Blogspot to WordPress in 2012 was about Guided by Voices. For many of our Gen X and Millennial contributors (and, likely, readers), the indie rock age of the 1990s has a prelapsarian glow to it: a time before Napster, YouTube, and SoundCloud, when the twin evils of record companies and MTV (soon to be joined by the third horse of the Apocalypse, Clear Channel) still wielded despotic power, when people still fretted about nonsense like authenticity and street cred, when indie still had a somewhat oppositional mentality and bands such as Sonic Youth had to sheepishly beat around the fact that they did, in fact, sell-out, and former indie darlings such as R.E.M. unabashedly, and then abashedly, went full-on mainstream.

So much for all of that. Both artists and fans have since wised up and don’t wince when their favorite song is an Hyundai commercial. (Hello, renowned Marxist rebel M.I.A. A girl’s gotta eat.) Still, there is something mystical about finding a weird, unique music in a dusty record bin rather than a random corner of Spotify, and even more rewarding still to develop a fanatical loyalty to an artist that only you and a precious few other, equally anointed and discerning, ten thousand people know about.

Guided by Voices is perhaps the prototype of such a band. From their name (“are they, like… Christian, or something?”) to their more or less persistent insistence on failure, GBV was a quintessential cult cause celebre. An alcoholic former elementary school teacher and baseball player who writes hundreds of thousands of ridiculously catchy ditties and craps them out on one benighted four-track? From Dayton, Ohio, no less? What’s not to like?

GBV, and its mastermind Robert Pollard, first came to prominence with 1994’s Bee Thousand, after recording a few sloppy and brilliant records more or less on their own dime. The story on Pollard was that he was a shambling genius from the boring flats of the Midwest, who could be the biggest rock star in the world if he ever bothered to get his shit together, or at the very least got prescribed to a decent ADD med. He wrote crazy good hooks and, well, basically nothing else, so the band’s albums inevitably became sprawling, half-hour long efforts, as one minute-and-half scrap of melody flitted anxiously to the next. (1995’s Alien Lanes was 41 minutes with 28 songs.)

Then, in 1997, came Mag Earwhig! Pollard shed his original line-up of collaborators and teamed up with the Cleveland band Cobra Verde to record a new album in an actual studio, with engineers and stuff. The idea seemed to be that GBV would finally grow up and record a proper album, and then become “huge!” More polished than its predecessors, Mag seemed like it might actually go somewhere, with more fully formed songs like “I Am a Tree” and “Bulldog Skin,” the latter of which actually did get a (truly) modest amount of radio and MTV airplay.

Being an annoying teenager at the time, I felt like good old Captain Bob had sold out. The mystery and mystique of Sunfish Holy Breakfast and Under the Bushes Under the Stars, recorded all those one year before, seemed to be gone forever. In their place, though, were some pretty great songs. Looking back from 2020, Mag Earwhig! sounds more lo-fi than it did at the time, and it has the usual mix of Pollard gems and distracted throwaway songs that can be found (in varying ratios) on any of his records.

What comes across most strikingly today, though, is the emotional vulnerability on display. Pollard’s stock-in-trade has always been infectious melody and funny, surrealistic gibberish (“Unbaited Vicar of Scorched Earth,” “Universal Nurse Finger”), behind which our drunken hero could hide any real feelings. Mag has some meta in-jokes (the song “I Am Produced” comments on the album’s aesthetic as a whole), but there are actually some real moments here. There were rumors at the time that the record was somehow a concept album, but Pollard was and still is much too distractible for that. It does have a theme, though, which appears to be break-up turmoil. “Sad If I Lost It” is a great, Beatlesque mid-tempo song about trust won and lost, regret and diffident solidarity.

Oh this time I really mean that

a cracking coat where I dig that

Oh this time I want to leave it alone

Oh this time I really trust you

but it can’t belong to anyone

and I’d be so sad if I lost it

Guided by Voices, “Sad If I Lost It” (1997)

Yes, this is what passes for emotional revelation with Bob Pollard, but I’ll take it. Elsewhere there is genuine longing and remorse: the low-key ballad “Learning to Hunt” expresses fear about a relationship where he has to try harder and an erstwhile partner appears keen to see what else the world has to offer (“all the answers out there”). And even more surprisingly, the crisp, acoustic track “Now to War” speaks with candor about alcoholism and domestic abuse. “But this is you, and this is war, it makes me drink even more, and I’ll have fun and then I’ll make a mark on you…” As unsettling as this imagery is, it demonstrates a degree of self-knowledge not found in much of Pollard’s music. It also conveys smallness instead of the usual GBV brio, portraying a man who feels like a scared little boy. “There is no boy in me now, there is no time and I’m alone, but I am only breathing, breathing around.”

That’s plenty of confessional songwriting for one Bob Pollard of Dayton, Ohio, of course. The rest of the album has some truly classic hits of giddy whimsy, such as “Not Behind the Fighter Jet” and “Jane of the Waking Universe.” Compared to many other GBV albums, and especially Pollard’s solo efforts, Mag Earwhig! has a pretty strong ratio of great songs to terrible ones. Guided by Voices is always a numbers game.

Re-listening to the album now, for ToM’s Dog Days Classics series, I’m reminded of how moments that seem pivotal in the careers of musicians and other artists recede into the past, shrink and warp to a different shape than they once had. When Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came out in 1997, it felt like a brilliant last hurrah for the great man. (He had just had a heart attack.) He went on to record nine more albums, some of which (such as Love and Theft and Modern Times) are as good as anything he ever recorded. U2’s 2000 All that You Can’t Leave Behind seemed to me like a “back to basics” pander to the fans, for a band that was past its prime. For better or worse, this was not an ending for the preachy Irishmen but just a stop along the way.

Mag Earwhig!‘s minor concession to production values did not make Pollard a star. But the next few GBV albums did provide a bit of the fame that Captain Bob secretly craved, as fully-realized pop songs such as “Hold On Hope” and “Glad Girls” popped up in the soundtrack of films and sitcoms such as How I Met Your Mother. Pollard ultimately went on his merry way, churning out six albums a year and pursuing his reckless, not-always-wise muse in Prince-like fashion.

Indeed, like discovering free verse, punk rock, or the music of Prince, Guided by Voices offered the awesome realization that you could literally do whatever the fuck you want and it might actually be good. I first found them in the bin at, of all places, Media Play, and the completely tossed-off EP Sunfish Holy Breakfast seemed like a window into a world that spoke another language. “If We Wait,” which sounds like a long-lost John Lennon demo for Rubber Soul, grabbed me with the coy, queer persona Pollard adopted, its lilting melody, and shambolic sound quality. It was and probably still is one of my favorite songs of all time.

In any case, I look back with fondness on 1997, the year when I dissed my favorite band for “selling out” with an album about being a tree, old grunts, an ex-girlfriend called Scud, and galactic space babes at the dawn of time.

Jane of the waking universe!

A wrinkled rose snapped back

and the flies on flowers spreading out

to all sickness of humanity

Listen to our queen as she is offering free samples

of her lovely garden spoils

Jane of the waking universe

and undulating always like the tide

The devil’s bride is calling all toward her skirt

and in the loving folds there we will hide inside

from any would be sneak attack

until it’s safe to journey back

Jane of the waking universe!

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

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