How the Pixies Followed Up ‘Doolittle’ With ‘Bossanova’
The Pixies' full-length debut, Surfer Rosa, kicks off with an angry, stomping drum beat joined by splintering guitars and, finally, the mad shouting of Black Francis – a kind of perverted street preacher who proceeds to go on about watching women eat fast food and staring at their lips. Their follow-up, Doolittle, opens with a full-spectrum guitar chord, Francis screaming to the utter limits of vocal credibility about slicing eyeballs and laughing violently – like one might laugh into the face of someone they were about to strangle to death.
It's easy to talk about Bossanova, the band's follow-up to Doolittle, in terms of the things it lacks. For one, it lacks the kind of mood-shattering introduction that make Surfer Rosa and Doolittle discreet, violent worlds unto themselves. (Instead, the album kicks off with a note-on cover of an obscure surf instrumental.) It also lacks any songwriting contributions from bassist Kim Deal, and contains barely any of her singing, which had been an essential counterpoint to Francis' gut-splitting howl on the band's earlier releases. It lacks the graphic sexual fixations that made the other records feel, at times, so pervertedly honest. It lacks a song that breaks all of the rules of the album, complicating its topography, the way "Hey" does on Doolittle or "Where is My Mind?" on Surfer Rosa.
The terrain of Bossanova is relatively even, though no less awe-inspiring. The album boasts the biggest-sounding production, and some of the band's simplest and most beautiful songs. And the album is a kind of clarifying of vision for Black Francis, who wrote every song save for "Cecilia Ann" -- a first for a Pixies record -- and who still calls it his favorite Pixies record.
Francis was able to clarify his vision due in large part to the turmoil that had engulfed the band. When the Pixies released Doolittle in 1989, tensions between Francis and Deal, the band's other visionary, were at the point of combustion. By the end of Doolittle's supporting tour, they'd gone supernova. Deal was unhappy that Francis was making less room for her creative contributions; Francis was less than receptive to her complaints. During the Doolittle tour, things boiled over (particularly after Francis threw his guitar at her during a tour stop in Germany). When the band went on hiatus after the tour, Deal decided to give up the fight and focus on her work with the Breeders.
Bossanova became a pure distillation of Francis' vision. The band set up shop in Los Angeles in early 1990 to record the album, far from their hometown of Boston, where they'd recorded Doolittle. Instead of spending lengthy amounts of time writing and demoing the songs the way he did for Doolittle, Francis wrote during the recording sessions.
That alone likely contributed in a significant way to the record's even gait relative to the band's previous output. Surfer Rosa, in relief, was a sonic and emotional minefield that detonated intermittently and of its own will, leaving bloody dresses and broken bodies scattered among the debris; Doolittle fused alternately psychopathic and apocalyptic thoughts with dichotomistic sounds (like Francis' and Deal's intertwining vocals) in a kind of thick stew.
Bossanova is more like, well, a conventional record -- a collection of like moments united by a crystallized theme. The songs retain the latent manic hunger that characterizes the band's previous work while supplanting the simmering sexual anger and buried social neuroses with snapshots of dreams about space ships and surfing. And the music still manages to fit in with the rest of the band's catalog. Some of the songs are simply gorgeous. "Blown Away" is one of several moments on Bossanova that approximate being swallowed by a tidal wave. Appropriately, the lyrics are about having nothing to say in the face of beauty and collapse.
The sound of "Havalina" is similarly numbing in its sheer prettiness, evoking both Phil Spector's castle-like production and the breeziness of a surf movie soundtracks. Francis watches little razorbacked hogs trot across the Arizona desert.
One can listen in actual awe at these ornate musical edifices and still miss Francis at his most destructive. "Velouria" is among Francis' best achievements as a songwriter, and of a particular type that he sometimes employs: Chest-clinching choruses rise over ascending chord patterns, while Francis rings a rare, supernatural sweetness out of his voice. There's precedence for this kind of song as far back as "Caribou," from the band's debut EP Come on Pilgrim, and "Wave of Mutilation" from Doolittle. But where "Wave" tells the story of a particularly picturesque suicide, Velouria is just picturesque. "We will wade through the shine of the ever," Francis croons. It's a nice image to fall asleep to, and one you don't have to worry about haunting your dreams.
So it is, too, with all of Bossanova's strongest tracks: The brief, powerful pop gem "Allison"; the sweetly hallucinatory "Dig For Fire," the funkiest Pixies tune on record; the euphoric poem "Ana." All are lyrically cohesive and exultantly catchy; none instigate the kind of psychic unease that until then gave the Pixies their signature mix of pretty rock and perversion.
Still, it's unfair that Bossanova has largely been defined by what it lacks rather than what it has to offer. The uneasy interaction of Francis' voice with Deal's is missed, as is the danger that always seemed to lurk beneath the surface of the music. But what we're left with is an album clear in its intentions and consistent in what it delivers and also brimming with sheer beauty, in a way that, for better or worse, is unhindered by any subsumed ugliness. Among a relatively small discography, Bossanova deserves its place beside the all-time classics.
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