"We know a Beatles song, 'cause we're classy. We're very classy."
-- Kim Deal, tongue-in-cheek, at the Black Cat, August 2009
Several political figures have pointed out that history doesn't move in a straight line; a concept often connected to the pursuit of justice, which means different things to different observers. Rock history progresses this way, too. But the frequent regurgitation of an agreed upon canon of greatest albums creates the opposite impression, of a single straight line moving from a handful of influential artists through a series of lesser dots. But what's more real to an individual listener: The latest list of 100 or 500 albums as determined by a corporately owned media outlet? Or the assemblage of albums that marked one's particular trip through rock music?
As a kid, listening to the Breeders' Pod (1990) introduced me to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun". I had not heard the original version by the Beatles. Even after I listened to The Beatles years later, in my mind the Breeders' variation remained the dominant version of the song. That's not the kind of argument that would propel Pod to the top of the RS 500, but it is sincere. Consider that the Beatles were active for a decade but continue to inspire soundalikes. While there's no disputing their outsized influence on rock history, their sound is common. Breeders have been around for three decades, and their sound is still distinctive. No band could be mistaken for them.
All Nerve is the fifth Breeders LP, following debut Pod, commercial breakthrough Last Splash (1993), delayed Title TK (2002) and follow-up Mountain Battles (2008). All Nerve is especially noteworthy for its reunion of Last Splash lineup Kim Deal, Kelley Deal, Jim Macpherson and Josephine Wiggs. Despite the missed opportunities some might identify in the between-album years, with ups and downs in the lives of the members and associated shifting lineups, this is a group whose every unhurried full-length release is essential. This is a quality so rare that no other group among their 1990s alternative rock contemporaries compares.
That's not to say the Breeders can do no wrong. In fact, one could argue that to be so distinctive carries not just the risk of failing, but failing in isolation. The brilliant Title TK, perhaps the most divisive album of the band's discography, is a document of musicians swerving into an alien lane and staying there. How fitting that what finally brought a bigger audience around to the strange skeletal lure of a song like "Off You" was Her (2013), a future-set science-fiction movie. Title TK is gutsy for staking so much (the successor to Last Splash!) on such a spare toolkit.
All Nerve possesses all of the mysterious tones of Title TK, and the execution is by the same group of musicians that enjoyed mainstream success with the multiple single-spawning Last Splash. One could call it the best of both worlds, but under Kim Deal's guiding vision, it's all one world. This album is another confident step into that world.
The record begins with "Nervous Mary", the initial atmosphere of which could fit on Title TK. But the action of the song, which finds the character running, sets an active pace for the full band. Advance single "Wait in the Car" occupies the number two position within the tracklist, a placement shared by "Cannonball" off Last Splash. "Wait in the Car" is another uptempo track, its lyrics imagining some kind of purgatory. Cars and driving are recurring themes in Breeders songs, and this isn't the only appearance they make on All Nerve.
Title track "All Nerve" is an early emotional high point of the album. Though the song explores a few different modes, some overflowing with electric guitar noise, there are moments of quiet beauty. The song also reveals new ways in which Deal pairs her singular voice with the lyrical content. Her reach to a slightly higher register within "I may be high / I may hide" is emblematic of how much mileage this band gets from subtle compositional choices. Then there are the moments of near-silence that function as emotional transitions or resets.
By the time "Metagoth" appears, it's clear that All Nerve exhibits the widest variety of song styles since Last Splash, an album whose curveballs were as impressive as its hit singles. "Metagoth" is co-written by Kim Deal and Wiggs, and Wiggs' voice here adds an unforeseen character to the band normally so closely associated with the voices of the Deal sisters. And the interaction of the bass with the lead guitar brings the album into the territory that Alice in Chains explored in their 1992 hit "Would?" Here the Breeders execute a grunge/goth period piece but avoid the brazen recycling of signifiers in kitschy period exercises like MGMT's recent Little Dark Age.
The second half of the album begins with "Walking with a Killer". Though the song repeats and varies the car/driving theme and the upper register singing from earlier in the album (both to magnificent effect), this is another song that pushes forward the possibilities of what a Breeders song is capable of doing. In this case, the specificity of the place and suggestion of violence form a shocking contrast with competing forces like better judgment and a dubious romance. And for anyone who would appreciate the likeness to the guitar sound of circa 2003 SM & Jicks, there's an ephemeral jolt of recognition. Likely it's a coincidence, but it could also be another sign of the band's ability to dip into material from any year of their recorded output for inspiration.
They also go back further, to 1970, for a version of Amon Düül II's "Archangel's Thunderbird", a cover that reveals similarities between that song and "Cannonball". Further, notice how "Dawn: Making An Effort" resembles a song title from the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed? "Dawn: Making an Effort" borrows a vocal melody from "Mad Lucas" and comes back to the running subject of "Nervous Mary". But the wide open, slower pace of the song sets up the Breeders' own "Let It Flow"/"Young Gods"-style floodgates-bursting-open climax.
The final song, "Blues at the Acropolis", confirms the impression that All Nerve is an album about rock, and about history, and about the classics. There's a very short list of rock songs that treat history so creatively. A few of them are Minutemen's "History Lesson – Part II", Supergrass' "Prophet 15", and yes, the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun".
"Blues at the Acropolis" may well be the sound of becoming classic rock, which is what the Breeders are, but with none of the baggage the phrase suggests. The final, serendipitous pleasure of All Nerve is an image that emerges from "Blues at the Acropolis", of this women-led band "climbing the mount" victorious. In a year when the Recording Academy President said women must "step up" if they want to be visible in the music industry, the Breeders have released the rock album of the year so far.