Normally, I take the view that comparisons to the glorious past are unfair; that new material deserves an objective ear. In Pixies’ case, it’s become almost impossible to manage. Touted foolishly by the band as being ‘like Doolittle’, and recorded in the knowledge that their fifth album was badly received, Head Carrier has ended up being a massive, broken promise and very little else.
Already, the record has ignited quarrelsome dialogue amongst fans, otherwise united by a shared disdain for Indie Cindy, their previous album. Some have suggested that Pixies now sound fresher and more exciting than before, which is partly true – the drums are gorgeously splashy and Francis screams more now. Others, however, have found Head Carrier to be little more than a natural continuation of the disappointing trends established in 2013, which I agree with. The saccharin chorus of Might As Well Be Gone recalls the hideously jangly Ring The Bell; likewise, the contrived buoyancy of Oona brings to mind Cindy’s Another Toe In The Ocean.
Just as before, it’s the production doing the vilest disservice. Tom Dalgety helms the desk on this one and whilst his work is technically superb, it’s completely inappropriate. Hardly shocking at this stage, I know: Gil Norton sank Cindy beyond reproach with similarly full, middlebrow engineering. It’s still a shame though, given the distinctive, aural flavours referred to by Francis in his promotional lies.
There are some anomalies to examine, the first of which is Classic Masher. It’s a superb thing; exactly as you’d imagine a Pixies pop-song to be – brilliantly catchy but utterly absurd. Lyrically, it centres on a bizarre, wordless exchange in a clothes shop between Francis, an ex and her new partner (the titular ‘masher’). It’s utterly nonsensical. Just what is a classic masher? Why is he “[talking] boots” with his haberdasher? Why can’t Francis remember whether the book he’s reading was a gift or if it’s stolen? Regardless, the song is a fantastic tune and probably one of the best I’ve heard all year, with a great balance of melody, fun and sweet, sweet volume. Sadly, it sounds nothing like the Pixies. In fact, Classic Masher doesn’t even fit on this record and, given the band’s recent reputation for half-baked self-imitation, this joyously stupid gesture has achieved a kind of ironic non-conformism. It’s fab.
Later, we’re confronted with All I Think About Now, a co-write with new bassist Paz Lenchantin. Musically, it’s as gorgeously major as Classic Masher, but even better for its unexpected meander around cleverly unfamiliar notes. What’s most interesting about this song however, is its heart-breaking lyric: an apologetic letter to former bassist Kim Deal, in the unfamiliar sentimental handwriting of Black Francis. Lenchantin sings on the arrangement (the tune to which, is hers) and it’s an overwhelmingly sad song, fraught with feelings of absence. Her fragile voice replaces Deal’s, but takes lead where you’d expect Francis to – it’s a duality of emptiness that makes the pair’s old disputes both omnipresent and entirely invisible. It’s a beautiful olive branch and, moreover, it’s a shockingly vulnerable lyricism given Francis’ notoriety as immovably ‘correct’ on the decisions he made to persistently suppress Deal. Similar to Classic Masher however, it’s almost unwelcome, both for its comparative quality and indeed its bizarre mood.
The rest of the album is what you’ve come to expect and worse. Opener Head Carrier seems to aim for something with its shrieking lead, but the rest is disappointingly tame (pardon the pun). Later, Baal’s Back tries out something similarly dense, but it comes off as trying too hard. Might As Well be Gone and Oona are similarly caught between pop and nothing, utilising gross chords for grossness’ sake and not for hypnotic effect as on Surfer Rosa or Bossanova. Despite repeated listens I am also still confusing Bel Esprit, Plaster Of Paris and All The Saints, each of them as bland and pointless as the last. Amazingly though, sub-dire is also achieved on this record and it’s devastating to say the least. Talent, despite good intentions musically, is just dumb (case in point: it rhymes ‘Jack Palance’ with ‘talent’). Worse still, there’s a distasteful f-bomb dropped on the chorus and a cringe-worthy spoken-word, half-time outro that needs to be killed with fire. (“What a waste of talent” indeed.) Arguably the most offensive thing here is Um Chagga Lagga, which uses this disgusting, rockabilly/alt-rock fusion, complete with faux-Deep South lyrics (‘corn’ is rhymed with ‘ten in the morn’’). I cannot understand why the decision was made to release these tracks as he singles. Not unless you’re cynical enough to think that reverse marketing tactics were employed to get people to buy the LP so they could hear the better songs – what a ridiculous idea.
So yeah, in short, there are flashes of greatness here: two fabulous (albeit incongruous) showstoppers, sexy drums and some half-decent Vaughan Oliver artwork. But at the end of the day, the fact remains: we now have two sub-par Pixies records when once there was only one.