From 1988 to 1991, the Pixies put out four albums, at a rate of one a year. Then they broke up. In terms of sheer density of quality, their output is staggering: each of these albums has been called a classic, and each one pursues a different, singular take on the band’s sound. Their crowning achievement is Doolittle, their second album, which took the modus operandi of their debut and applied it to material even darker, stranger, and more mysterious. Conceptually, the Pixies arrived fully formed – their disjointed, dynamic, surrealist take on garage rock was fully evident on Surfer Rosa – but it was only on Doolittle that their execution comprehensively matched their ambition. Here, their dynamism was given room to breathe with greater recording fidelity, and their penchant for surrealist lyrics took on a new cohesive significance.
Doolittle is an album about communication; between animal and human, man and woman, artist and listener. To get there, it surveys surrealist cinema, roman mythology, and the Flintstones. In Spanish. If it’s range of cultural reference can be baffling, that might just be the point, because the Pixies are a band who thrive on contradiction and tension. Some of their greatest, most accessible pop songs have been followed on albums by short blasts of punk aggression, and the songs themselves are delicate high-wire acts constantly teetering between harsh and soft, loud and quiet. At any moment, they feel like they could spill from one to the other. Take, for example, ‘Dead’, which opens with pounding drums and lurching guitar feedback while frontman Frank Black sings stuff like “you get torn down, I get erected”. Then, for exactly 12 seconds, it sparkles into a bouncy, major-chord chorus before being swallowed up by guitar noise. ‘There Goes My Gun’ pulls the same trick but inverted, stretching out that bouncy, major-chord chorus into the whole song and cutting short moments of dissonance into it. These songs, each only a couple of minutes long, demonstrate the ease with which the Pixies swallowed up and spat out, disfigured, the remnants of traditional rock music song structure.
This irreverence for tradition manifests itself also in the albums most pop-leaning moments. Songs like ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘La La Love You’ are played with a knowing irony and tongue firmly in cheek, but they turn hipster bait into something entirely more interesting by being, at the same time, bloody great pop songs. ‘Here Come Your Man’ has the kind of perfect plinky-plonky cheese that makes for classic karaoke, while the latter song features guitarist Joey Santiago, voice dripping with sarcasm, doing his best crooning Morrissey impression and founting about love, sex, and his ‘pretty baby’. At the start of the song, he unassumingly instructs you to ‘shake your butt’. He’s joking, but you want to do it anyway.
Elsewhere, Doolittle proves considerably darker. Opener ‘Debaser’ is a song about Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, a disjointed assault on the eyes that remains just as shocking today as it was in 1929. The film’s most famous shot was also its mission statement, in which a woman stared blankly into the camera while her eye was sliced open with a razor blade. Black, in the songs chorus, shouts that he’s “slicin’ up eyeballs”, but what he’s really slicing up is eardrums, because the song, and the album as a whole, can be considered as the musical inheritor of everything Un Chien Andalou stood for. It’s the point where twisted romance meets lyrical surrealism, where animal desire meets human intellect, transforming the language of rock music into a kind of primal communication which proves most affecting when it transcends lyrics entirely. Take, for example, the moment in ‘Debaser’ when Black breaks down into maniacal laughter just as the bridge brings the song to a moment of brief calm. It’s perhaps the most spine-tingling moment on an album full of spine-tingling moments.
Another highlight is ‘Hey’, which bends its western-tinged riffing around a wonderfully wormy baseline to compellingly sleazy effect. The song touches on the albums theme of communication (or lack thereof) through the lens of a man and a woman, attempting to flirt, but conveying their emotions with all the subtlety of two gorillas shouting at each other: “‘UHHH’ said the man to the lady. ‘UHH UHH’ said the lady to the man”. It’s a moment that manages to be funny, slightly disturbing, and intensely serious at the same time: in this respect, it couldn’t better represent Doolittle as a whole. It’s also an example of the effortless chemistry between each band member, how they complement each other’s strengths without any one instrument taking the spotlight.
The Pixies created something unique with Doolittle. They were smart, funny, primal, angry, and silly all at once, and in this mess of contradictions there was something new, something rock music had never seen before. It’s no surprise then, that swathes of bands followed in their wake. Kurt Cobain famously described “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as his attempt to ‘rip off the pixies’, but their influence has trickled down into all kinds of places. You can hear it in Deerhunter’s anxious punk melody, the Dismemberment Plan’s scattershot neuroses, the Flaming Lips’ psychedelic surrealism, and countless other places. It was the lightning in a bottle that drew a line under everything that had come before, and then bounded forwards into new, unexplored territory. With the Pixies now back together and working on new material, it remains to be seen whether lightning can strike twice. But whether or not it does, Doolittle remains, as wild and untamed as ever, and ready to slice up our eardrums all over again.