The year is 1989, and ground-breaking debut albums are plentiful. The Stone Roses are shaping the ‘Madchester scene’ with their self-titled debut; Nine Inch Nails are setting themselves apart from industrial music with Pretty Hate Machine, whilst Nirvana are crashing onto the scene with Bleach.
Despite being in the midst of all this, alternative rockers Pixies were also etching their own path. They released their second album Doolittle, and in doing so refined their signature sound, that was first heard on Surfer Rosa the previous year.
The album celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and even though 2019 draws to an end, Doolittle’s legacy lives on.
Surfer Rosa, the Pixies debut, wasn’t a commercially successful release. That being said, it’s now regarded as an album that turned a lot of industry heads, and began to influence artists at the time.
Most notably, Kurt Cobain spoke about the impact that Surfer Rosa had on Nirvana’s sound, so much so that he even admitted he was “trying to rip off the Pixies” with the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
On their debut, the Pixies flaunted their ability to blend sometimes-boisterous rock, with pop music, and on Doolittle, they showcase a more polished version of this formula.
The majority of the songs on Doolittle centre on themes such as religion, science, art, sex and pop culture. Typically written by frontman Black Francis, it seems fitting that the Pixies’ disjointed and often eccentric lyrics come from a man whose given name was Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, a far cry from his chosen stage name.
“Debaser” focusses on the Luis Buñuel flick Un Chien Andalou, and deals with Black’s desire to “grow up to be, be a debaser”; that is to humiliate art and ethics in the same way the film did when it was released.
This old French film doesn’t really have a plot, and instead connects scenes through a vague association of ideas. This is mirrored by Black’s ramblings – “Got me a movie / I want you to know / Slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know”. He then crows “I am un chien andalusia”, purely because ‘andalou’ sounds too French, so ‘andalusia’ is a better fit. This is fragmented Francis at his best.
The Pixies are perhaps best-known for helping pioneer quiet-loud rock music. “Tame” is a perfect example of this. Kim Deal’s opening bassline is a soothing reminder of how pop-rock is always an option, whilst Black begins in a kind of whisper. He’s not fooling anyone though, and although he quietly mutters his lines, the rage inside him is obvious.
The first line “Hips like Cinderella”, almost sounding sexy in the way it’s purred, perfectly captures Black’s message here. Cinderella isn’t racy or fiery, so desiring her hips is a little innocent. The college kids he grew-up around in Boston were innocent too, no matter how hard they tried to be badass.
He calls the girl ‘Cookie’, before erupting into the hook, screeching “Tame!” over and over again. The vocals here sound metal-like, ear-splitting and sharp. This is vintage Pixies, and if you watch some of their live performances from over the years, you’ll struggle to understand how Black Francis still has a voice.
The quiet-loud signature is stamped all over the album. On “Monkey Gone to Heaven“, the first single released, Black comments on our destruction and pollution of the world. “There’s a hole in the sky”, he reminds us, before hellishly sneering “Everything is gonna burn”.
Black’s verses are solely backed by Kim Deal’s bass chords and some cello strings. This simplicity gives the impression of a wise speaker, which is further added to by the pauses given at the end of each line.
Joey Santiago’s guitar makes the song sound a little noisier in the chorus, however Kim’s vocals still render the song chill. It’s only as the end of the song approaches that Black delivers some trademark screams, powerfully dictating some biblical numerology – “if the devil is six then God is seven”.
It’s a similar story on “Gouge Away“, which also makes references to The Bible, this time through the story of Samson. Here the chorus is the soft part, and Black’s verses make all the noise – “Chained to the pillars / A three day party / I break the walls / And kill us all”, he roars.
The final track on Doolittle, “Gouge Away” finishes the album as “Debaser” started it, strong and distinctive.
“Here Comes Your Man” must be partly responsible for helping grow the Pixies’ fan base, given its catchiness and commercial success. If you’ve just listened to a song like “Tame”, it may strike you as odd that this is the same band. It feels straight to the point and universally accessible, and wouldn’t feel out of place at a family wedding or Christmas party.
“La La Love You” continues the easy pop vibe, but sees drummer David Lovering take the mic’, providing a new sound for the album. These are your model pop-rock tracks, and in an album splattered with bizarre content, they surprisingly don’t feel out of place.
The album feels succinct and packaged, perhaps due to the short length of certain tracks, such as “Wave of Mutilation“, “There Goes My Gun” and “Crackity Jones“.
This short length works especially well on tracks like “Tame”, which is more of a rant than a song. The shortness and simplicity of Black’s hushed verses, juxtaposed alongside often unpredictable and aggressive choruses, works well for the album and gives it a sound described as ‘stop-start’.
This fitted their image at the time, they were no-nonsense college rockers. They didn’t wear anything fancy, or try to be edgy or hipster, they just played their music.
The Pixies haven’t enjoyed the same level of success this side of the millennium. They released Indie Cindy in 2014 after a twenty-three-year hiatus, to mixed reviews. Head Carrier similarly didn’t fare too well when it was released a couple of years later in 2016.
Perhaps this is for a variety of reasons. Black Francis might not be able to speak about violence, sex and religion in the same way anymore. Maybe Kim Deal’s departure left a void in the group that couldn’t be filled. Doolittle was also born in an alternative-rock boom period, and for that reason its impact and attractiveness may be impossible to replicate.
Regardless of their current achievements, it must be noted just how important Doolittle was. It’s an album that helped set the benchmark for alternative music.
Many fail to recognise just how much Doolittle influenced not only Nirvana, but grunge music more generally, and also a whole collection of nineties rock bands. The quiet-loud, stop-start dynamic that Pixies brought to the table revolutionised the alt-rock sound.
With each and every listening of Doolittle, it seems like more can be taken from it. Black’s lyrics can at times be heavily-layered, and entwined within the words are suggestions of sex, violence and religion.
Some of his messages however are clear, are even more relevant today than they were in the late 80’s. The environment is growing devastatingly worse every day, and the problem is no longer just “a hole in the sky”.
Creepy leers like “I’ll get mine too” shed a light on what mankind may reduce itself to if resources become scarce and people become desperate. Given Black’s interest in destruction and biblical violence, it’s obvious what he thought could happen. In today’s world, we may only be a whisker away from all this, considering how things seem to be going backwards in certain places.
Even if the Pixies fail to create another album as critically acclaimed and celebrated as Doolittle, they can rest assured that they made something special. The album can be enjoyed from start to finish, with some particularly outstanding tracks, and this is still the case thirty years later.
Few artists or bands can consistently produce quality music through the years, but even fewer can produce something so fresh that it changes how music sounds at the time. In 1989, Pixies didn’t do a little, they did a lot.
Words by Kyle Roscoe