The Pixies’ Bossanova at Thirty

In a piece on this blog years ago – a piece about the Pixies, as it happens – I argued that critics and fans should judge artists by their best work, while artists should judge themselves by their worst work, or at least by their average, as a way to keep humble and looking to learn and improve.

The context for that was the release of the Pixies’ Indie Cindy. It got kicked from pillar to post by fans and critics alike, but I argued didn’t spoil the band’s legacy and took nothing away from the work they did in the late eighties. I’d no more judge the Pixies on, say, Bagboy than I’d judge Bob Dylan on track three on the second side of Knocked Out Loaded.

But if we reduce the Pixies just to Doolittle and Surfer Rosa (the latter of which I’m much, much fonder of), what of Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde? The latter is a weird record, one I’ve never connected with. I suspect it’s simply not very good. Bossanova, thirty years old this month, is a different case.

It starts well. No, scratch that. It starts very well. The band’s cover of the Surftones’ instrumental Cecilia Ann is the first Pixies record I ever heard, as it’s track one, side one of the 1997 compilation Death to the Pixies, and it’s absolutely great. The band barrel into it with full-bore commitment and no little precision, and it’s full of weird flourishes, synths and ghostly vocals and guitars that turn a surf song into a sci-fi surf song, thus setting out Bossanova‘s stall: it is, pretty much, a sci-fi surf album.

Track two, Rock Music, is the most extreme the band get on Bossanova (it’s not the album for you if you enjoy Black Francis most when he’s in veins-bulging, vocal-cord-tearing mode), but again, it’s askew. Dave Lovering plays a song called “Rock Music” with a four-on-the floor disco pulse, which is a neat little joke for those who catch it, while Joey Santiago tears some of his most angular noise out of his Les Paul, fighting Francis’s vocal all the way through. If you’re not in the mood for it, it’s a grating headache of a record, but on the right day, it sure sounds like the Pixies at the top of their game.

Velouria is unquestionably the Pixies at the top of their game. It’s built on a cool chord sequence in the verse and a grindy opening riff with that incorporates dissonant augmented intervals, but the tune is wistful and pretty, as Francis spins an impressionistic tale of a girl from the lost continent of Lemuria who’s covered in fur and lives in a hollowed-out mountain (I think. His explanation is pretty tough to follow). Once again, it has a spacey kind of feel, this time from its prominent theremin, and Lovering is in commanding form – his tom-and-snare build-ups that take the band back into the big riff are arena-ready stuff, an air drummer’s dream. It even has some Kim Deal backing vocals, which are mostly absent from Bossanova, to the record’s detriment.

Unfortunately, this is as good as Bossanova gets, and the drop-off is both marked and immediate. Charles Thompson (sorry, I know he was Black Francis then, but it seems daft to refer to present-day Thompson as the stage name he adopted in his early twenties) has said he wrote a lot of his lyrics on the fly, five minutes before recording them, but the record’s shortcomings go deeper than just the lyrics.

I think, fundamentally, Bossanova revealed a bigger problem with his songwriting. Thompson’s melody writing is just not very ambitious or creative (compared to so many of his peers, but to pick two that are most instructive, listen to Bossanova and then Pod by Kim Deal’s Breeders, or to Nirvana’s Nevermind). Without the manic energy that drove the band on Doolittle and especially Surfer Rosa, his songs can sound a bit undeveloped. There are a lot of songs here that don’t really go anywhere, with only the Talking Heads pastiche Dig for Fire, the lovely closing track Havalina and the partially successful The Happening standing out.

The latter encapsulates Bossanova‘s strengths and weaknesses. Intially it sounds like another one of the record’s plodding, clean-guitar, gated-drums, whispered-vocals songs, before 30 seconds in it takes an unexpected turn and Thompson/Francis lets rip. But the compelling verse, a twisted blues in form, is then undercut by the chorus that consists of a falsetto Francis (at least, I think it’s him; it’s pitchier than I’d expect from Kim Deal) singing the simple phrase “Beneath the sky” four times. It’s just so inert. The second time the chorus comes around, seemingly aware of the problem, he adds a monotone eighth-note countermelody, but that, too, gets wearying quickly. When the song finally fades out and the reverb-saturated Blown Away begins, it’s actually a relief.

The overall sense of the album is that of a well running dry. The Pixies had made a mini album, Come on Pilgrim, in 1987, Surfer Rosa in 1988 and Doolittle in 1989. That’s a lot of activity in a short time. The band had toured extensively, too, particularly in Europe. In early 1990, Kim Deal had recorded her first album with the Breeders, on which she wrote or co-wrote everything, and consequently she had no songs on Bossanova. She and Thompson were at daggers drawn after their previous tour. Charles Thompson had concentrated all power within the band in himself, and while he made a laudable effort to move the band’s sound on rather than just make Doolittle part II, he couldn’t find within him a set of songs on Doolittle‘s level, let alone Surfer Rosa‘s.

Trompe Le Monde has its fans (among them Foo Fighters’ leader Dave Grohl), but for most the downturn signalled by Bossanova was permanent. Nothing the Pixies did after its first three songs hit the same heights as their work between 1987-89. A record that’s equal parts anthemic triumph, flawed experiment and tedious retreading of familiar ground, Bossanova is the sound of a band losing its grip on greatness.

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