Pixies in Decline

Nine years ago, on a family vacation to Hawaii for my aunt’s wedding, I spent a fair amount of time poolside with my Walkman and two CD’s: Bad Religion’s The Process of Belief and Pixies’ Doolittle. My interest in Bad Religion soon faded, but Pixies made an indelible impact.

I had purchased Doolittle, one of the first CD’s I ever bought myself (and the one with the strangest cover by far, at that point) at the behest of a good friend after I told him how much I liked his band’s cover of “Where is My Mind?” (this was in middle school). At first, the album both enticed and repulsed me: my twelve-year-old ears had never heard anything remotely like it. I couldn’t stop listening.

Pixies are far from my favorite band. These days I go weeks or months without listening to them. But I don’t go a day without feeling their influence. At a time when my listening habits consisted almost exclusively of classic rock and middling, commercial pop-punk, Pixies opened me to the weird, the raw, and the absurd. Directly or indirectly, the pop savagery of “Debaser,” the black Biblical humor of “Dead,” and the unaffected oddness of “Hey” were formative to my taste. My love of The National, of Donald Barthelme, of Charlie Kaufman, all began in some way with Pixies.

Yesterday, Pixies released their first new song in nine years. Despite some redeeming, nostalgia-inducing moments, it’s laughably terrible.

This state of affairs is unsurprising. The band has been reunited for nearly a decade and has spent that time almost exclusively cashing in on nostalgia. (I never did get to see one of those Doolittle shows, though I wish I had.) Bassist Kim Deal, whose ghostly voice was an important complement to Frank Black/Black Francis’, quit the band. And even decades ago, the band was going downhill: I like Bossanova pretty well, and Trompe Le Monde has its moments, but there’s no question that they don’t stand up to DoolittleSurfer Rosa, or Come on Pilgrim. Frank Black’s voice doesn’t even really sound that much like it did back in the day. (It’s a lot more technically proficient now but sounds a little off doing Pixies songs.)

All of this is to say: the new song, called “Bagboy,” had a lot going against it.

Musically, it actually bears a fairly interesting relationship to the band’s catalogue. The totally alien, electronic-sounding groove of the first few seconds erupts into a very Pixies-sounding drum track (though it’s perhaps only incidentally Pixies-sounding; this was the late 80’s/early 90’s, after all). Joey Santiago’s signature overdriven guitar blares are there, and they still sound great, even though they’ve become a pretty common trick. Frank Black’s speak-singing vocal delivery evokes “Subbacultcha” and “Dancing the Manta Ray.” And if you stop thinking so hard about it, the chorus almost sounds like something off Doolittle.

But it’s sort of a trick. The best part about that almost-Doolittle-ish chorus is the backing vocal, a soundalike for the absent Kim Deal performed by Jeremy Dubs. It’s telling that the song’s best-sounding aspect is both a very old trick (Deal’s singing is one of the things that even Pixies haters admit made them stand out from the glut of college rock bands) and an imitation; it’s almost insulting to Deal’s choice to leave that they would get someone else to try to sound as much like her as possible.

And then there’s the lyrics, which are awful: “Like when I hear the sound of feet slapping on the runway/like a small bird pretty while it’s crapping on the new day”; “She had some beauty and manners but you look like a bug/Migrations of their type are such good planners and not smug.” It sounds like Black was trying to recapture the magic of the best lyrics he wrote for the band, which often blended the vulgar and absurd. But the magic’s gone; the lyrics to “Bagboy” are weird in a lifeless, trying-too-hard-to-look-cool kind of way and thus almost embarrassing to listen to. Beyond this, the song doesn’t stand up to very many listens; it’s about three times as long as it might warrant in its best form, and even the charms of Black’s snarling delivery and the almost-old-Pixies chorus don’t last.

So: thanks, Pixies, for doing all that you did while you were great. I’ll still probably buy the new album, because nostalgia has me in its grip. Maybe some of it will be better than this mess. And I’ll still try to go see you on tour, if only because it might bear a passing resemblance to this:

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