Do you believe in Mr. Grieves? Do you like songs inspired by Surrealist films from the late 1920s? Are you searching for music that could possibly redeem the 1980s? If you answered any of these questions, you need to check out Doolittle by the Pixies. If you already know all about the Pixies, then you already know that Doolittle is a unique entry in rock history to say the least. For the neophytes, let’s find something to compare it to, shall we? Here goes: Doolittle is like a Tom Waits, Salvador Dali, and… well, I dunno what else… Husker Du, maybe? – inspired punk album. Before pop/punk became a pejorative term to describe bands like Blink-182 and whatever else your 8th grade sister likes, it would’ve been an apt way to describe what the Pixies were doing (in addition to inspiring a certain Mr. Kurt Cobain. Depending on who you ask, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was either inspired by “Gigantic” or “Debaser.” It was a sad day for music when Cobain shot himself, reportedly after having a vision of the future in which he saw himself being used as an avatar in a video game where players could force him to sing songs by Bush and Bon Jovi. This theory is not without controversy, however: some experts believe Cobain shot himself one morning after realizing he was married to Courtney Love, an incoherent heroin vacuum whom – thankfully – no one has heard of since).
A lot of people dig 1988’s Surfer Rosa and they’re not wrong to do so. Along with “Where is My Mind?” (a.k.a. “the Pixies song everyone knows” or “that song from Fight Club“), Surfer Rosa features such classics as “Bone Machine,” “Broken Face,” and – a candidate for the Best Song Ever – “Gigantic.” It is a good album, and I’ll not dispute that here. But Doolittle… it’s fucking… Doolittle. Again, it’s hard to describe if you’ve never heard it, but it’s a masterpiece – a twenty-year-old masterpiece as of this year.
Doolittle opens with what may well be another candidate for Best Song Ever (a contest for which you gain as many entries as you earn. The Clash has… well, a lot of entries), “Debaser,” which was apparently inspired by Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (written by Salvador Dali), a film that features the sliced up eyeballs that Black Francis is howlin’ about (“Got me a movie/ I want you to know/ slicin’ up eyeballs/ I want you to know”). I took the GRE this week and to psych myself up for it, I listened to Doolittle a lot and “Debaser” even more than that. Somehow, it didn’t help me much on the math portion. Along with “Gigantic” and “Here Comes Your Man,” “Debaser” forms a holy trinity of Pixies songs that make me wanna jump around the room screaming like a goon. It’s really hard to type when you’re doing that.
For a long time, I had this prejudice against 80s music because so much of it was absolute crap and I will neither attempt to disguise nor apologize for my prejudice against crappy things. But as time has passed, I’ve found the hidden (deeply hidden beneath piles of bad hair, synthesizers and cock rock) gold of that era: early R.E.M., the Clash’s Combat Rock, Jim Carroll’s Catholic Boy, early Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and the Pixies. You won’t be seeing that shit on I Love the 80s. No, you won’t. But that’s okay because that music isn’t for everyone. In fact, I can easily imagine Doolittle upon its release in 1989, coming out with a scream and announcing its presence as a late-80s album for people who think the 1980s can mostly go fuck themselves. I largely get that feeling from “Tame,” don’t ask me why.
Despite Frank Black’s gnarly howl, which will no doubt turn some people off of the Pixies (your loss), the Pixies are (I was gonna write “were” but they’re touring again this year, playing Doolittle in its entirety to celebrate its 20th anniversary) an inherently tuneful band. Most of their songs have a strong pop undertone that makes their albums complete bliss to people like me who adore beautifully ugly music. Doolittle offers several strong opportunities for the Pixies to showcase that strength: Kim Deal’s background vocals on “Debaser,” the entirety of “Wave of Mutilation” and the positively sublime “Here Comes Your Man” and “La La Love You.” The feel of these songs may have resulted from the tension between producer Gil Norton, who wanted to lengthen the tracks and polish up the sound a bit, and Frank Black. Black told Rolling Stone, that Doolittle “is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy.” It would appear Norton and Black split the difference because the album is a grungy poppy pile of awesome, an album that was awesome in a way that neither grunge nor pop may ever be again. Even so, the songs on Surfer Rosa proceed logically toward the more developed sound of Doolittle, so it’s not as though there was a radical tonal shift for the Pixies on their sophomore effort. You could say the Pixies were destined to make oddball, grungy pop like you find on Doolittle, but I won’t say that because I flatly refuse to believe in destiny.
Part of the charm of any Pixies album is the delightfully odd lyrical sensibility that Black brings to the proceedings. I’m not gonna go off on some pretentious comparison of the Surrealism Black clearly studied with his approach to songwriting (this isn’t Pitchfork, after all), but I will commend the dude for making a song called “Monkey Gone to Heaven” that is essentially about the effects of pollution on the planet (“there was a guy/ an underwater guy who controlled the sea/ got killed by 10 million pounds of sludge/ from New York and New Jersey”) or making people sing along with a song whose only real verse is about slicing up eyeballs (by the way, “Debaser” is the number one Pixies song I want to hear a Modest Mouse cover of). Doolittle is Frank Black at the height of his lyrical power and the band at the height of their musical power; it’s 15 tracks in 38 minutes and when you get to the end, you just wanna start over and grow up to be a debaser.