Pixies – ‘Doggerel’ review: still the alt-rock gold standard

The band's eighth record – and fourth since their reunion – finds them just as menacing, but measured and mature, too

Menace, too, matures like fine wine. Pixies’ seminal early albums – the very bedrock of modern alternative rock – were sharp and biting vintages: young and stinging, unrefined, spiced with Latino lust and melodic fury and prone to induce intoxicating visions both sci-fi and Biblical.

Their first few comeback records (2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’ and 2016’s ‘Head Carrier’) found fresh harvests from the same soil remarkably palatable. But as bassist Paz Lenchantin and now-regular producer Tom Dalgety have become infused into the band’s complex formula, adding touches of orchestral largesse and dusky grunge pop, it’s only with 2019’s gothic-tinged ‘Beneath The Eyrie’ and this eighth album ‘Doggerel’ that a Pixies thick with experience have evolved a cultured new flavour worthy of their esteem; oak-aged yet sparkling, rich yet earthy, musty notes giving way to bright sensations. Menace, with a more sophisticated aftertaste

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Despite shifts in personnel, the core elements of Pixies’ magic remain untampered. Joey Santiago continues wringing trademark wails, roars and viper strikes from his guitar like some cornered desert wildcat. Paz respectfully honours Kim Deal’s brand of hook-chasing bassline and deadpan backing vocal. David Lovering still sounds as though he’s drumming in some dungeon beneath a ruin on the borderlands. Much of this evolution, then, is down to the changing face of Black Francis’s songwriting. More inclined to growl than howl these days (although his tracheal beast breaks free on ‘Dregs Of The Wine’) his maturing tone makes him sound like a cult elder, crooning and snarling tales of loss and legend around entranced campfires. Timeless songs rooted in folk melodies and classic rock’n’roll, in thrall to the elements, heavenly bodies, human failings and the mysteries lying an inch beyond our mortal dimensions.

There’s ‘Haunted House’ – ‘Doggerel’’s melodic masterpiece and a sister-piece to both ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘Catfish Kate’ from ‘Beneath The Eyrie’ – in which, driven by some undefined present day desire, Francis sets out for an old English pile to capture the echoes of previous lives that once inhabited the place with a séance song of sweeping 1950s elegance. The folk pop ‘Thunder & Lightning’, where a roll of thunder rattling New York City on a trip to a vegetable market transmogrifies into the roar of war racing towards us from distant lands. The dreamy alt-pop hymnal ‘The Lord Has Come Back Today’, and ‘There’s A Moon On’, a grimy roadhouse rocker which finds the full moon transforming Francis into a raving horndog. Which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘bad moon rising’.

Joey gets in on the elemental mysticism action too, penning the lyrics to the Beatledelic ‘Pagan Man’, a bright-eyed lament for ancient nature worshipping ideals as we hurtle towards 1.5 degrees. But the song that really makes ‘Doggerel’ sound as though it’s been recorded directly onto brown-edged scroll is the title track. Introduced with a self-effacing four-line doggerel written by George Hangar, 4th Baron Coleraine, around the turn of the 19th Century, it’s a hallucinogenic funk groove over which Francis channels Tom Waits to tell of the 1973 foundation of the remote town of Colrain (named after George’s father Lord Baron Coleraine) in Massachusetts. Early settlers there, according to a satirical poem at the time, made many attempts to leave the town only to fail to climb the surrounding hills and end up back in Colrain. As a noble chorus emerges and Joey strikes up heroic chords in honour of their scarp-based struggles, Francis transposes this cartoonish history to a relationship he’ll never leave and an underlying theme of the album, and Pixies’ second phase, coheres. The enchanting and mythologising of everyday pain, love and emotion through the prism of history, art, myth and literature.

Take the mariachi noir ‘Vault Of Heaven’. As Joey’s scowling Morricone riff circles the song like a gunslinger around a prairie graveyard, Francis equates the classical art term for the celestial realm to an alcoholic’s dreams of the beer stockroom at his local Kwik-E-Mart. “I went to 7-Eleven to try and get me straight” he sings in a medicated slur, “I ended up in another case”. Or the infectious flamenco Who of ‘You’re Such A Sadducee’, which likens an emotionally destructive partner to the draconian religious leaders of ancient Rome.

‘Nomatterday’ – its front half a tranqued-up ‘Tame’, its back half a gnarled sci-fi rocker redolent of ‘Trompe Le Monde’ – wraps a collapsing relationship in a collage of images of necromancers and beasts of famine. And with lyrical flourishes worthy of a Coleridge opium stupor ‘Dregs Of The Wine’, Joey’s first Pixies song-writing contribution and sonically a very Pixies twist on ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, harkens back to Francis and Santiago’s 1990s party days: “drinking the dregs of the wine under the Hollywood sign” and seeing “the smiling queen of Thailand” while in Las Vegas on acid. That such high times would inevitably lead to a crashing comedown makes for the reflective pathos of the thing. Francis even opens the song by reciting the excuse that he and his then-wife would eventually give for their amicable divorce – “While I prefer the original version of ‘You Really Got Me’, she will defer to the Van Halen version”.

‘Get Simulated’, a slice of synthetic fuzz rock that sounds like Pixies have become the first band to successfully clone a Weezer, stands out for its futurist tone. In one of rock’s most thoughtful interjections into the debate around the ‘humanity’ of artificial intelligences, Francis takes the role of an uploaded consciousness considering the dilemmas of ‘life’ in the digital sphere; immortal, but forever destined to pine for physical contact. The song acts as something of a sop to those who might be disappointed that the latter-day Pixies have shed some of the gore, crank and mania of their youth, settling now into an amenable and erudite groove of widescreen folk rock, surf pop and sumptuous indie noir. But ‘Doggerel’, in its hospitably decanted way, is every bit as transportive and absorbing as the early records, and further proof that Pixies’ music remains the alt-rock gold standard. Swill it around and savour.

Details

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Pixies - Doggerel

  • Release date: September 30, 2022
  • Record label: BMG
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