One question is what you’d actually want from a new Pixies album in 2019; another question is what a new Pixies album in 2019 is obligated to give you. “In the witching hour!” growls antihero singer-guitarist Black Francis amid a squall of sugary, paper-cut-sharp guitar distortion, a bouncy and lethal bass line churning beneath him, his impassive, shades-adorned face superimposed over an exploded skull in the official video. Which is plenty, and maybe even enough.
The song is called “On Graveyard Hill,” and it’s about, y’know, a witch, and the last line of the chorus is “And soon I will be killed,” and all is right with the world. Just as it was in 1989 when all the cool kids thought the Pixies were the best band ever; just like in 2004 when the Boston quartet reunited after a mythic 11-year hiatus and suddenly pretty much everyone thought they were the best band ever.
One potential issue with “On Graveyard Hill” is that somebody else is supplying that bouncy and lethal bass line now. Indeed, the estimable Paz Lenchantin, veteran of dudely groups from A Perfect Circle to Queens of the Stone Age, now holds down the bass-and-vocals spot once occupied by founding Pixie and national treasure Kim Deal. Since 2014, Lenchantin has joined Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer-magician Dave Lovering in a solidified but still blasphemous shakeup of the volatile and thus iconic foursome that packed clubs in ’89 and packed megafestivals in ’04. But another potential issue with this song is that it is, indeed, 2019.
Yes, the Pixies, those Alternative Nation deities, those fathers (and mother) to the “quiet verse/loud chorus” style of every beloved rock band you’d care to name from Nirvana forward, those furious innovators with a menacing and alluring sound so foundational that the 2006 documentary devoted to their reunion is actually called loudQUIETloud, return Friday with Beneath the Eyrie, their third postreunion record. The band’s first two postreunion records, 2014’s Indie Cindy and 2016’s Head Carrier, were mostly greeted with either suspicion or outright hostility. It is the curse of a beloved band with an A+ back catalog returning, after a long absence and a disheartening partial regime change, to make C+ art. It is a question of whether we ought to deflate the old grades or inflate the new ones. It is a matter of whether we’d all be much better off if we did neither of those things.
The legacy aspect here is absurdly daunting, to them, to everybody. I can confirm that in 1992, when they opened for U2’s arena-roaming ZooTV tour and I had no idea who they were yet, that the Pixies were the loudest, scariest, most captivatingly atonal rock band ever born. I can likewise confirm that in 2008, when the now-enshrined band’s 1989 loud-quiet-loud masterpiece Doolittle was released in full as downloadable content for the video game series Rock Band, that “Tame” was the funnest song to play and by orders of magnitude the hardest song to sing.
The band’s late-’80s Boston origin story and rise to caterwauling Buzz Bin greatness is established history at this point and thus hardly needs rehashing, as perverse and entertaining a tale as it remains. Seriously though: “Charles was really soft and pretty, and he screamed like a girl, but with real guts behind it,” recalled Throwing Muses singer Kristen Hersh to Spin about an early Pixies gig, referring to the man born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV but known professionally as either Black Francis or Frank Black. “When he started singing about his penis, I figured out that none of them were lesbians.”
The old Kurt Cobain quote to Rolling Stone about how he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” says it all—“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies, I have to admit it [smiles]”—and has indeed said it many, many, many times. The Pixies’ initial run from 1987’s Come on Pilgrim to 1991’s Trompe le Monde is bulletproof. “Don’t trust anyone over 30, Surfer Rosa still screams to this day,” my Ringer colleague Lindsay Zoladz wrote last year in praise of the band’s 1988 also-masterpiece. “But records over 30 don’t count.” That initial catalog is, album by album and song by song, as abrasive and ecstatic as modern (or postmodern, or premodern) rock ever got or will ever get.
And that, of course, is the real problem. The Pixies broke up in 1993 (reportedly via fax machine) and reformed in 2004 as joyous conquering heroes finally getting their due: Their reunion tour is the gold standard for nostalgia-fueled but nonetheless present-tense joy, not so much a victory lap as the victory itself. And just like in the old days, the band’s primary engine was the frightful tension between Francis (the Pixies’ imperious frontman, and as fearsome and charming a screamer as this country ever produced) and Deal, the infectiously chill and world-historically cool bassist who hardly ever sung lead but did so on “Gigantic,” one of the band’s signature tunes to Francis’s unending exasperation. Their vicious rivalry is canonized right there in the opening seconds of Surfer Rosa’s “Where Is My Mind,” which, thanks in part to Fight Club, remains the Pixies’ signature tune: She belts out a ghostly, startling note, and he yells, “Stop!”
“Bam Thwok,” the reunited band’s first new one-off single, was a revelation in 2004, written and sung by Deal in her oft-imitated and nonetheless inimitable style, childlike and surrealist and jubilant. But she left the band in 2013, and for a while the bassist situation got messier: That same year the Muffs veteran Kim Shattuck ceremoniously joined up for a new tour but was unceremoniously fired within a few months, while the Fall veteran Simon Archer played on the three EPs that came to constitute the first new Nu Pixies record, 2014’s Indie Cindy.
That record, recognizably scabrous and unnerving but also not a little exhausted, got slightly better reviews than I remember, though not from Pitchfork, which responded with a six-album joint review that officially canonized both Surfer Rosa and Doolittle with 10.0s and dismissed Indie Cindy with a 2.5. “Worse than any of the music is the feeling that a band so deft at challenging the system has become part of it in the most predictable ways,” Mike Powell wrote, “rubbing together the tropes of their old art and hoping they can still start a fire, replacing experimentation with routine, filling Kim Deal’s place with not one but two different bassists over the last five months, breaking up the album into three EPs to gin up interest, and generally reminding us that artists of their stature are businesses, not charities.”
Indie Cindy does include a very fun (and unnerving) freakout called “Blue Eyed Hexe” with a cock-rock riff so brazen (plus cowbell!) and a Francis lead vocal so screamy that it collapses the once-considerable difference between the Pixies and AC/DC, if that is a distance you were eager to hear collapse. It is safe to assume, at this point, that somewhere between 40 and 95 percent of the public distrust of this record owes to Deal’s absence. But it’s not great, and it doesn’t much even pretend to be “worthy,” if that is a thing you were eager for it to pretend to be.
Head Carrier, from 2016, is an improvement if only thanks to Lenchantin, a buoyant and stabilizing force who on the album’s splendidly bizarro second half spars with Francis on the bouncy “Bel Esprit” and the rowdy “Um Chagga Lagga,” and in between takes the spotlight on “All I Think About Now,” asserting herself even though the song itself sounds close enough to “Where Is My Mind,” what with the ragged guitar melody and ooh-ooh vocal refrain, to qualify as a sequel. “I try to think about tomorrow,” Lenchantin sings, “but I always think about the past.”
That tune portends another intra-band power struggle that does not come to pass on Beneath the Eyrie, which despite Lenchantin’s stabilizing presence is a Charles Thompson/Black Francis/Frank Black showcase through and through. (The solo catalog he amassed during that lengthy Pixies layoff is an unwieldy but often shockingly rad beast, from the power-pop gem “Headache” to the masterful gothic tale “Bullet” to the righteous tune literally called “Kicked in the Taco.”) Francis sounds like a cross between Tom Waits and Wolverine on the bluesy, growly “St. Nazaire”; he specializes in long, languid, eerie, theoretically mythic epics like “Daniel Boone” or the impressively expansive spaghetti Western “Silver Bullet,” plus horror-adjacent campfire tales like “Catfish Kate.” (“Let me tell you about Catfish Kate,” he growls on that one, “in the time before, when she’s just Kate.”)
I am glad the Pixies finally got around to writing a song called “Los Surfers Muertos,” and I am glad Lenchantin gets to sing it. Beneath the Eyrie is convincing proof that the band has moved on even if nobody else quite has; it’s not going to beat, say, Bossanova in your personal ranking of Pixies albums, but it’d sound much worse if it had actually tried. It’s not that beloved college rock bands can’t reform and make the best music of their careers: Mission of Burma, fellow Boston icons who lay dormant from the mid-’80s to the early 2000s, arguably peaked with their second postreunion album, 2006’s magnificent and furious The Obliterati. (By arguably, I mean I am arguing it.) But this situation is a little different: Virtually every alt-rock band that came along after the Pixies sounds like a pale facsimile of the Pixies. It is only right, and its own sort of honor, that this applies to the Pixies as well.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the album on which “Where Is My Mind” appears; it’s Surfer Rosa, not Doolittle.