There’s nothing more college rock than an album review from a campus newspaper about the Pixies.
The quartet defined college rock in the late ‘80s with their 70/30 ratio of punk to pop. This was a decade before people heard the bastardized pseudo-music that is modern pop-punk, which lies more at a 20/80. Kurt Cobain listed the band’s 1988 album “Surfer Rosa” as his second favorite album of all time, and justifiably so. Both “Surfer Rosa” and the band’s follow-up album in 1989, “Doolittle,” are chock-full of one-of-a-kind pop songs performed by four angsty musical visionaries.
It looked like the Pixies had recorded their final album in 1991 with “Trompe le Monde,” after nearly irreplaceable bassist Kim Deal left the band, but after recently getting back in the studio with Paz Lenchantin filling in for Deal, the band released “Indie City” in 2014. As its first release in 23 years, the Pixies proved it hadn’t left all its energy in the 1980s.
“Indie City” and the follow up “Head Carrier,” released in 2016, were a rebranding for the Pixies. These albums were accessible enough to make it seem like the Pixies were just another indie rock band trying to make a name for themselves in the impossibly competitive underground rock sphere.
The band released their third latter-era Pixies record, “Beneath the Eyrie,” on Friday, Sept. 13. The release date is fitting, considering that the album is by far the darkest of the three recent works. The album is rife with themes of seclusion, death and disillusion illuminated by somber instrumentation. Unlike the previous two albums, “Beneath the Eyrie” seems much more conceptual and closer to what one would consider a classic Pixies sound.
For the first time in ages, lead guitarist Joey Santiago has broken out the ambient yet furious guitar tones that gained David Bowie’s praise in the 1980s. Tracks like “Ready for Love” lend mischievous glints of a shrieking, emotive guitar that ultimately culminates in a thunderstorm of dissonant guitar tones. This being said, this is still a far cry from the punk energy of early Pixies albums that have gained so much clout.
While Santiago’s guitar playing remains relatively familiar, the vocal work of lyricist and primary songwriter, Black Francis, is comparably alien. It’s not atypical for vocalists to develop wavers, raspiness, and inconsistency as they age, but amazingly Francis seems to have aged extremely well.
When comparing the last couple of albums to “Beneath the Eyrie,” Francis sounds much more — for lack of a better adjective — metal. The maniacal screams heard on early Pixies tracks such as “I’ve Been Tired” and “Something Against You” have been replaced with guttural distorted shouts on tracks like “St. Nazaire.” Black Francis has always been a heavy manipulator of his voice, so it’s reassuring to hear him remain eccentric and adventurous late in his career.
Francis has also been known for painting extremely vivid pictures with his lyrical choices, often involving references to the Bible or fables. “Cross of the one-arm wine that's fortified/Now, to hasten crucifixion/Hold that train, I told that skinner man/This is my place,” Francis harks during “This Is My Fate.” Often the phrases are related only by similar emotional energy, which never compromises the integrity of the music. For comparison, Beck’s “Loser” executed this same concept flawlessly.
In 2019, the Pixies are completely different, and yet entirely the same. Deal left a long time ago, and as hard as it is to get over it, Lenchantin does a strikingly good job filling her place as a musician. Along with Francis’ odd vocal changes and the relatively par-for-the-course performance by drummer David Lovering, “Beneath the Eyrie” is a pretty out-there late-career effort from one of the hardest-to-peg rock bands there is.