Guided by Voices has a new album coming out April 22. This is mildly surprising because, only a couple years ago, a tour was cancelled midstream and the group was, well, disbanded. Then again, if you are a fan of GBV, then perhaps this return isn’t surprising at all. Stability has never been a tenet of the band. Being prolific is, however, as this new album, Please Be Honest is their 23rd or 24th full length studio album, depending on how you categorize releases. On top of that, you can add a plethora of EPs and singles and other assorted releases. Guided by Voices are, by most measures, one of the most prolific musical acts of all-time.
You may want to restate that as Robert Pollard is the one with the prodigious output. This new record features Pollard playing all the instruments. It’s basically a solo album for him, but under the moniker Guided by Voices. This is as opposed to his solo albums, which he has released 21 of, and he’s had an assortment of other short-lived musical projects as well. Guided by Voices is the main project, and the most beloved one, but in many ways he is Guided by Voices, because he’s been the one constant all these years. Band members have come and gone by the barrel full, but Pollard has always remained. The man seems to compulsively write songs — he has over 1,900 songs listing him as the writer registered with BMI. That is, frankly, a borderline insane number of songs for one man to write, and that’s where we jump off to get to the real question at the heart of this piece. Can a musician be too prolific?
The knee-jerk reaction may be to dismiss this question out of hand. How could more music from an artist you love be a negative? Can there be too much of a good thing, one might ask? While that is an aphorism with which you may be familiar, it actually doesn’t really come into play here. This isn’t really a “too much of a good thing” scenario, because we are talking about music and not, say, some delicious foodstuff that is also slowly killing you. You can’t overdose on music, or find your aortic valve jammed full of guitar riffs. No, the potential problem here, and it is entirely possible one might not find it to truly be a problem, is something different.
The main issue here is diminishing returns, or perhaps quality versus quantity. Probably a mixture of the two, and maybe some other stuff thrown in there. In short, would you rather have 20 great songs to listen to, or 50 songs that are a mix bag of great to okay, and perhaps even bad? And then you have to sift through all those songs to find the good ones? Now, imagine you are talking about hundreds of songs, which is the scale the most prolific musicians are working on.
Guided by Voices is a great band. You could put together a hell of a greatest hits album out of their material, and they did, way back in 2003. Since then, the band has released eight albums, if you count Please Be Honest. If you’ve been there since the beginning, or close to it, you can just follow along as you go, picking up each new album, listening to a handful of more songs, probably liking a few of them, and moving on. On the other hand, trying to get into Guided by Voices, or a similarly prolific artist, as a new listener is a daunting task. It’s akin to looking for a new show to binge. Do you really want to go with the show that’s had over 200 episodes, especially when you can find 10 different shows with, like, 50 episodes? Not that Pollard really seems to care about being accessible, of course, but if you are a musician, there is a level of output that can be off putting. It can also give off a vibe of your material being tossed off, which brings up the next issue.
Again, let it be reiterated that Guided by Voices is a great band, and Robert Pollard is a top notch songwriter. Nevertheless, it is simply impossible to make so many songs and have the hit rate be anything approaching 1.000. You can’t have 24 albums of all killer, no filler. Not every Guided by Voices song is good. There is probably nobody who would argue otherwise. Granted, less prolific artists also have the occasional clunker. Even Pavement has “Carrot Rope.” However, the point is, the more music you generate, the more good songs you have, but also the more bad songs you have.
Additionally, the rate of good to bad song doesn’t tend to remain constant. Eventually, diminishing returns tend to kick in. When a Bruce Springsteen or a Bob Dylan or a Neil Young releases an album that is even decent, it is greeted with positivity, or perhaps just relief, and those are three of the greatest musicians to ever live. They also don’t try and release as much music as somebody like Pollard. Guided by Voices isn’t making albums like Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes anymore. There are assuredly people who consider them big fans of the band that won’t be picking up Please Be Honest. They might not even bother to give it a spin. Their enthusiasm is gone, because they have simply been overloaded with Guided by Voices songs. Why not just go back and listen to the classics?
In the end, this is the plight most, arguably all, particularly prolific musicians deal with. Eventually, your discography becomes cumbersome, and your output gets worse. There is virtue in restraint, all things in moderation, and so on. It’s sort of like how people view The Simpsons these days, to make a comparison to a more well-known and beloved piece of pop culture. The Simpsons still does good episodes, and it is still a decent show overall. It’s just that, at a certain point, things start to slide, and there is no greater crime an artist can commit than not being as good as they used to be, judging by the ethos of the internet, at least. At a certain point, a loss of quality is a guarantee with an increase in quantity, and the more you muddy the waters of your legacy.
Of course, nobody can stop Pollard from recording and releasing songs, and nobody should try. You can always avoid listening to him, if you so choose, and the man is entitled to his creative outlet. Nevertheless, from a critical perspective, an artist can be too prolific for their own good. It’s hard, as a fan, to remain excited or enthused for release upon release upon release. Please Be Honest could be a good album, but, about 2,000 songs into his career, Pollard’s output is more about endurance as anything else. Sometimes, less is more.