For the last month or so, my interest in GBV has rekindled and I’ve downloaded three hundred or so of their songs from Limewire (Oh beautiful internet).
During the early-to-mid nineties, when they were almost completely unknown, they created some of the greatest pop/rock music since…well since the category was created, much of it in a garage in Ohio. The singer/songwriter was a schoolteacher. They were all quite fond of beer.
Their songs, short, fragmentary, with sounds of tape hiss, muttering, muffled vocals, also possessed surreal, evocative lyrics, great hooks, and brilliant melodies. They had a psychedelic flavor as well, with that sense of great discoveries that can never be fully explained.
The songs aren’t traditional pop songs so much as evocations of traditional pop forms, summoned and quickly discarded yet lingering. They’re an utterly American form of Surrealism, reminding me of David Lynch and Joseph Cornell, with a sense of accident and effortlessness hovering over the proceedings. After a song, you could find yourself with tears in your eyes, or jumping up and down, although you couldn’t say what the song was about.
Then the singer, wanting to be a crossover success, fired the band and made a million more songs that were adequate, and sometimes excellent. There were great melodies, excellent musicians, memorable choruses, but it wasn’t as good. Few of the new songs attained the level of those garage songs; in fact, making traditional songs seemed like, was, a regression. But the band was playing stadiums and the singer was drinking even more beer so….It was a success.
What this progression makes clear to me, again, is how much of what makes great art is accidental. No matter how talented you are, or how great your chops are, or your themes, the difference between good and great is outside of your control. Most of the time, you don’t even realize when you’re doing your best work.
What makes the case of GBV particularly sad is that many music critics – granted, the lowest form of writer – don’t understand why the early GBV is so good, or even that it is better than the new stuff. But it will come out in time.