It’s a good thing a legacy as towering as the Pixies’ is so hard to topple, because they did have a good go for a while there. Endless and increasingly joyless touring after their 2004 reunion lowered the value of their legend, while bassist Kim Deal refused to make a new record because, she said, as a music fan, she wouldn’t want to listen to a new Pixies album.
After her departure, the release of Indie Cindy and Head Carrier – mediocre and unconvincing if not actively terrible records, sometimes flippantly trying to shrug off the burden of the past, sometimes audibly crushed beneath it – did little to disprove her point (plus for many old fans, the Pixies without Kim wasn’t really the Pixies). Yet by 2019’s Beneath The Eyrie, Pixies Mk II had settled into their new skin, sounding more assured and no longer thrashing on the hook of their reputation on the likes of the breezy balladry of “Daniel Boone”. And if the die-hard purist Pixies fan might still be left wishing the past two decades had never happened, coincidentally, that’s kind of what the new, mature Pixies sounded like: solid, comforting late-’90s alt.rock, if not the piss-and-vinegar kind played by Pixies Mk I.
Doggerel, on which they reunite with Beneath The Eyrie and Head Carrier producer Tom Dalgety, continues that settling-in process, eschewing reinvention in favour of refinement. Its 12 songs were selected from a flurry of 40 written when Black Francis was reluctantly dragged from the cocoon of home, having enjoyed the escape and peace of lockdown, and its title seems to allude ironically to the critical reception of Pixies Mk II, the idea that they’re churning out boilerplate. Yet if “Nomatterday” opens proceedings on a classic, ominous bassline and builds to a shouty punch of a chorus that could have been generated by a Pixies AI model, the gothic flamboyance of Joey Santiago’s guitar is full of life and energy, and the song’s halfway shift of speed into chunky riffs lit by Paz Lenchantin’s sour-sweet vocals stops things settling into a groove. This is a band not agonising, just being.
And if you stop ranking them against Surfer Rosa for just a second, the Pixies in 2022 sound relaxed, happy, and wide-ranging, stretching out into airy melodies and gothic-country swagger where they feel like it. This is also the first of their albums to feature writing credits for Santiago: he contributed the music of the fun, thrashy “Dregs Of The Wine”, which contrasts Mudhoney-ish grungy chug with vaulting classic-rock riffs (and a classic Black Francis oblique opening: “While I prefer the original version of “You Really Got Me”/She will defer to the Van Halen version”). He also wrote the lyrics of the Leonard Cohen-ish funky-gothic-country title track, probably the most interesting song on Doggerel.
Elsewhere, the warm and peppy likes of “Haunted House”, with its lush backing vocals and theremin, and “The Lord Has Come Back Today” recall the sense of liberation of the early Frank Black albums. And if the band aren’t pushing hard at any envelopes on the surly, slinky, slightly psychedelic “Get Simulated”, or the rompy straight-ahead indie rock of “You’re Such A Sadducee”, they are tinkering enjoyably at the edges on “Vault Of Heaven”’s lush melody and Morricone atmospherics, or the flamenco thrum, shimmering Fleetwood Mac licks and sweet nagging chorus of “Who’s More Sorry Now” (“I swept the closet floor/I found some metaphors”). They’re happy to explore being a bit more plush, a bit more cosy, luxurious and gentle, and if it would make Steve Albini nauseous, what of it?
And listening to them enjoy themselves is in itself enjoyable on lead single “There’s A Moon On”, with its Halloween swagger, and despite reaching for “asunder” as a rhyme, the country-punk “Thunder & Lightning” has a totally irresistible chorus hook. “Don’t piss in the fountain”, Black Francis asserts, and maybe it’s sage advice.
Pixies Mk II now have as many albums as Pixies Mk I – if you’ve given up in recent years, perhaps now is the time to reopen the door to some small joys. If we can now safely conclude that the Pixies are unlikely to hit the heights of early days, then let’s face it, it’s the rare mortal who can; but it’s also the only slightly less rare mortal who can make albums as solidly good as this one. As long as the Pixies keep making good Pixies songs, maybe we should learn to stop worrying and love the Doggerel.