Your best-case scenario, reincarnation-wise, is to die and then somehow come back as Kim Deal’s voice. It is bratty and melancholy, sweet and vicious, a weapon of guile and power. The songs that made her famous—the Pixies’ scouring 1988 sunburst “Gigantic,” which first suggested that the pride of Dayton, Ohio, needed her own permanent spotlight, and the Breeders’ joyous 1993 MTV smash “Cannonball,” which used that spotlight to light the alt-rock boys’ club on fire—are timeless and peerless. But “Off You,” a cracked ballad from the Breeders’ spare and shellshocked 2002 album Title TK, is the one to get truly lost in.
You could live a long, fulfilling life as Deal’s strawberry-sandpaper rasp on this song alone, cutting through the haze of guitar and upright bass, transforming an enigmatic line like “I am the autumn in the scarlet / I am the makeup on your eyes” into something impossibly profound. I love this song precisely because I will never come close to understanding it.
The Pixies more or less invented alt-rock, imploded in ’93, and triumphantly reunited a decade later. It was a victory lap—Deal sung the band’s only essential song of the 21st century—that mutated into something more staid and cynical. (The boys are still limping on without her.) But under her command, the Breeders’ catalog—stretching from 1990’s unnervingly raw Pod to last week’s great All Nerve, the band’s first new album in 10 years—has aged just as gracefully, and disconcertingly.
Which is to say, with a distinct lack of anything resembling grace. For a band that ostensibly plays simple, guitar-driven rock songs that offer (for Buzz Bin scavengers of a certain age) a certain warm familiarity, there’s still something totally beguiling to this person, a bracing prickliness amid all the fuzz. “Just want a girl as cool as Kim Deal,” sung alt-rock hangers-on the Dandy Warhols in 1997. But this implied she was someone you might someday possess. They got it backward. We all did.
In the Pixies, Deal played the serene foil to blustery frontman Black Francis, a cheerful respite amid all the hooting and hollering. You can sense her aura—intimate and invincible, far more wounding than wounded—in two other great records that came out Friday, Lucy Dacus’s Historian and Soccer Mommy’s Clean, both from young artists already shrewd enough to avoid the indie-rock scene’s cool-girl clichés. Her closest modern analogue, though, might be LCD Soundsystem’s Nancy Whang, who maximizes the impact of her every background outburst, whether she’s shouting “North America!” or deadpanning the best verse on the new LCD record. Nancy oughta start her own band. Central to Deal’s allure is the idea that she quickly grew from an accent piece into the only voice you ever wanted to hear.
The Breeders’ lineup was, from the onset, a marvelously unstable thing, with Kim’s identical twin sister, Kelley, providing the only other constant. The hook for All Nerve is that it adds drummer Jim Macpherson and bassist Josephine Wiggs, and thus reconvenes the band that made 1993’s Last Splash, which remains, no bullshit, one of the best albums of the decade. That record’s hits (“Cannonball” boasts the bigger footprint, but the swooning “Divine Hammer” is even better) were invaluable pops of color amid grunge’s monochrome dourness, and Kim could swing from vulnerable (“Do You Love Me Now?”) to vengeful (“I Just Wanna Get Along”) in a thrilling instant. Quietly, as per usual, All Nerve is one of the best ’90s reunions you could’ve asked for.
In Last Splash’s aftermath, the prickly overwhelmed the fuzzy: Charles Aaron’s fantastic 1995 Kim Deal cover story for Spin laid out the band’s myriad trials and tribulations, from Kelley’s well-publicized drug problems to a looming maze of side projects, all of which Kim addressed with her usual delightfully blunt aplomb. “Of course, I know how my photos look,” she said, unimpressed with the idea of appearing on a magazine cover solo. “I know I come off lookin’ like a fuckin’ haggy housewife compared to all these other women in rock, and that’s fine with me, man. So I don’t wanna wash my hair, fuck you, this is how I look.” Here is one of the accompanying photos.
Wiggs and Macpherson were long gone by the time the Breeders finally put out 2002’s Title TK, which was lean to the point of skeletal, dazed to the point of confused, and all the more weirdly engrossing for it. (The album’s best chorus is “Has anyone seen the iguana?”) Mountain Battles, from 2008, has its charms: The Deal sisters’ voices intertwine splendidly whether they’re grunting in German or making a striking detour into heartbroken country. But from the onset, All Nerve has the unmistakable feel of the gang getting back together, hooky in a brusque and enigmatic way that proves far more satisfying than something that’s actually trying to satisfy you. “Good morning!” Kim barks, not unpleasantly, at the onset of “Wait in the Car,” the album’s brightest and most uncomplicatedly nostalgic moment. “Wait in the car!” she soon adds. “I got business!”
“All Nerve” has the same flagrant rawness as “Off You,” and Kim’s voice is every bit as captivating, especially given that her lyrics are much more direct: “You don’t know how much I miss you” leads to the considerably more menacing “You don’t know how far I’d go.” And the album quickly gets sterner, dirtier, thornier. Wiggs takes the mic and glowers her way through a hilariously menacing song called “MetaGoth”; the band crunches through a cover of Krautrock forefathers Amon Düül II’s mythic-dirtbag jam “Archangel’s Thunderbird.” There are songs called “Skinhead #2” (which opens with the line “I need spit / To crush these beetles on my lips”) and “Dawn: Making an Effort” (which sounds like Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” gently bobbing in an ocean of dishwater). This album holds you at arm’s length, but still holds you in thrall.
“Spacewoman” also finds Kim at her most unguarded: “Spacewoman, spacewoman / How lonely does it feel?” she begins, and soon her voice is cracking every time she repeats the line “I look up.” The chorus has a Peak ’90s sort of anathema to it, a non sequitur that makes mundane jock behavior sound positively celestial:
There’s a beach ball in the stadium
Playin’ baseball out there havin’ fun
Hittin’ home runs and line drives
With the sun in their eyes
“Walking With a Killer” is slow and ragged and far less bombastic, but also arguably even closer to Kim Deal’s essence, to the way she makes pushing you away sound like pulling you closer. She is plainly singing from beyond the grave: “I didn’t know it was my time to die / But it really was.” As Kim has explained, this song “stemmed from being in high school and walking from my house to the store and fucking assholes yelling out the window. ‘RAPE VICTIM!’ It was fucking raw around here. I think it’s ’cause there’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a military base and shit. … Dudes can really be not very cool sometimes.”
The Breeders came from a raw, uncool place but turned that rawness into the coolest sound imaginable, no matter how messy their internal affairs have gotten and how lengthy their absences. If you’ve held a flame for this band all these years, All Nerve will prove colossally rewarding, defiant in its refusal to merely rehash old glories and proving that much of those old glories were rooted in defiance. “You know what I always used to hate, was ‘Smile!’” Kim told NME. “‘SMILE!’ Fucking guys telling me to fucking smile. Fucking assholes. Like I have to have a good day to put a little light in their life. ‘Come on, girl, give me a smile!’ Fuuuuck yooouuu.” You get that message loud and clear on this record, as you always have. And it’s evident, as Deal delivers that message, that she’s not exactly frowning.