Nineteen Eighty-Nine. I graduated from high school. For this reason alone, the year stands out as formative in my personal history, though there were also many other factors that made it so. I moved out of the house I’d lived in since birth. My friendships got whittled down to a few core relationships that stand to this day. I got laid for the first time. And my taste in music shifted toward college radio as opposed to the Top 40 that I’d been devoted to my whole life.
On April 18, 1989, Pixies released their second full-length, Doolittle, on the heels of their 1988 debut Surfer Rosa. This was the record that was current when I discovered the band and I ended up buying all of their singles on CD along with the LP itself. The melodic “Monkey Gone To Heaven” worked its way into my consciousness at some point – one of the few Pixies songs where I know all the lyrics – and its sonic properties were unique to my experience at that time in life. Black Francis‘s soft, nearly spoken lyrics ramping up into screaming rage… “If man is five, if man is five, if man is five, if man is five / Then the devil is six, then the devil is six, then the devil is six, then the devil is six / And if the devil is six, THEN GOD IS SEVEN, THEN GOD IS SEVEN, THEN GOD IS SEVEN…” before relenting to Kim Deal‘s sweetly crooned epitaph in the chorus… “This monkey’s gone to heaven. This monkey’s gone to heaven.“
Nothing in Top 40 had prepared me for this. And while I occasionally enjoyed some well-placed screamy anger in a few songs here and there, Francis’s unleashed emotion was something far more primal and vulnerable than anything I’d ever heard. With fifteen tracks, the album still clocks in under 40 minutes, so there’s an urgency to every song, only two of which crest the three-minute mark. And though lyrics had always been very important to me in my enjoyment and appreciation of pop music, I found that they were less important on this record than ever before. Sure, I picked up the occasional gripping couplet here and there – “You can cry, you can mope / But can you swing from the good rope?” – but overall my reaction to the record was much more visceral than intellectual.
Almost 30 years on, I can read retrospectives on Pixies albums and appreciate the breakdown and analysis. But at seventeen or eighteen years old, I only knew how the album made me feel, and it was nothing I could articulate. The freneticism of the songs coupled with Black Francis’s oft-unintelligible caterwauling was transportive and allowed certain darker emotions to wash over and through me and, at the end of the experience, left me feeling washed clean, like the pleasant, sleepy emotional exhaustion you might feel after a good hard cry.
Since, Pixies have been one of my favorite bands, one I always come back to. And in my mid-forties it would be dumb if the songs still impacted me the same way they did when I was an adolescent. There’s a sense of nostalgia and I still find the record transportive in that it briefly carries me back to that period in my life, but that sense of time-travel wears off in the span of a single song and I’m just left to enjoy the music for its own qualities. The raw primacy still comes through, but it doesn’t connect the same way. After nearly three decades and countless bands influenced by the sound, Doolittle now sounds to me like the pioneering work of art that it is, a hard-rocking album with darkly surrealistic lyrics and ground-breaking song arrangements, even on straight-up pop songs like follow-up single, “Here Comes Your Man.”
Musically and lyrically, this record may be the best, most cohesive work the band ever produced. From the opening bass notes of “Debaser” (“…Slicing up eyeballs, I want you to know…“) to the surf-punk of “Wave Of Mutilation,” “There Goes My Gun,” “Dead,” and the closer, “Gouge Away,” there’s an underlying violence to the album that seems safe in its sense of removal – the difference between witnessing a car crash and being in one. Man’s destruction of the planet is murdering the oceanic gods in “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and they receive further reference in “Mr. Grieves” – “What’s that floating in the water? / Old Neptune’s only daughter…” Throughout it all, the music is almost overpowering, all but drowning out the vocals at times, with only brief respites here and there before launching back into melodic cacophony.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the band members here. Kim Deal’s bass playing and vocals are integral to the feel of this album, David Lovering‘s drumming is that of a man possessed, and Joey Santiago‘s lead guitar work is at the heart of the songs every bit as much Francis’s vocals and composition.
While I still love this record, still love the band, some of the experience is lost now that I’m older, more sedate, more pragmatic. “Lost” might not be the right word, as it’s not a lesser experience or enjoyment. It is simply not as emotionally resonant as it once was. But then, at my age, what is? Still, every now and then, a song will pop up at random on my iPod when I’m driving and I’ll find myself pounding the steering wheel and shouting, “THEN GOD IS SEVEN, THEN GOD IS SEVEN, THEN GOD IS SEVEN!” And then I look around, sheepish grin on my face, wondering if any of my fellow commuters have witnessed my outburst. For just a couple seconds, I’m seventeen again.