There is an alluring sound to the Pixies‘ new album Doggerel, underpinned by punchy drums, velvety bass, stirring guitar tones, and irreverent lyrics delivered in a cocktail of temperaments. The 12 songs switch between rock and folk quite drastically, and the crisp production perfectly serves this dynamic. Unfortunately, the sound, as bright and rousing as it is, is often a vehicle for foggy ideas and fabricated whimsy.
Opener “Nomatterday” is a multi-sectioned track that sounds like post-punk by a band who arrived late to that genre’s pier. However, it does land on some compelling passages and is a promising introduction to an album that regularly runs out of steam. It’s difficult to touch on these and future criticisms without first pointing out the unfortunate and potentially triggering ageism inherent in this type of cultural criticism. A group, even one as consistently professional as Pixies, will always be held up to younger versions of themselves, to purple patches in their career that bloomed from the high-performance levels occasioned by the advantaged position of young adults in the entertainment industry.
The band’s 36-year history means they are competing against 20-somethings with their fingers on the pulse of culture; figuratively and increasingly literal starving artists. This disadvantage is apparent across Doggerel. In a wonderfully shot promotional video for the album, Frank Blank talks of his contentedness and that he wrote most of the album a month before production.
On “Vault of Heaven”, Black “ended up in some dire straits, but that’s OK”. Perhaps these lyrics are an insight into the current emotional world of one of indie rock’s most revered songsmiths. He no longer needs to find a way to cope with the pains of life through obtuse and fiery expressions but is content to sing about accepting his fate. Where his early work could ignite the listener into revelatory states of mind, the songs on Doggerel placate. It’s the wisdom of experience; If you can’t beat them, join them, but be sure to hold onto your identity as you do. There’s no doubt that the songs here are tightly assembled and spirited, though, as thematically bizarre as they can become, it’s relatively safe territory.
That’s not to say that everything here is unimpressive. The scattershot “Dregs of the Wine” entertains with its recounting of a globetrotting acid trip and its hooky chorus. “Haunted House” is as schmaltzy as it is uplifting and catchy. If you’re willing to settle for inessentiality, “The Lord Has Come Back Today” is a sweet and innocuous country-rock offering, and “Thunder and Lightning” is good songwriting and little else. Some high points include “Get Simulated”, a first-rate folk rock track that never wears out its welcome. The lead single, “There’s a Moon On”, is a melodic ode to our lunar satellite that explodes into a cacophony of impressive guitar tones; quite timeless. “Pagan Man” elaborates on the theme of nature as a deity, with a portrait of someone guided by the moon’s power.
Yet something is frustrating about listening to Doggerel. Black is bitter and irreverent one moment; sincere and sagely the next. These moods are sequenced together without much thread, and it’s hard to know what mindset you need to be in to connect with this album fully. You can hear the talent, but it’s muted chiefly under a comfortable blanket of ennui. When Pixies show signs of their potency, it’s only there in theory, like a shark that sticks its fin from the surface but never shows its teeth.
While the sense of concerted effort from Pixies rarely lets up, few of these songs make a lasting impression. It can get dark in places, but overall, Doggerel is a celebration of settling and the most optimistic output from the Pixies since… actually, let’s not compare them to their former selves.