It gets me every single time. I’m conscious of the pattern, and yet when I’m in its clutches, I convince myself that for some reason this time is different. When I first listened to Head Carrier (Pixiesmusic/PIAS), I didn’t get it. Something wasn’t right. Had the band I reserve as a barometer for compatibility, the band whose 1991 Brixton Academy performance, as captured in a joyous YouTube artifact, never fails to rehabilitate whatever decrepit mood I am in, the band I would declare to be greatest on Earth to St. Peter himself, even in the face of eternal Hell flames should he be in disagreement—had they failed to deliver on their much-anticipated new album? More pointedly, had prolific frontman and songwriter Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV (a.k.a. Frank Black, a.k.a. Black Francis) personally let me down?
The prospect was frightening and easy to indulge. As summer gave way to fall, cynicism was everywhere. The threat of a President Trump loomed ominously. Mercury was in retrograde. Fans, including myself, had been pining to hear this record for months. Though the now Kim Deal–less reunited incarnation of the Pixies released a collection of three previously released EPs as Indie Cindy in 2014, Head Carrier marks their first proper full-length effort since 1991’s Trompe Le Monde. When I reserved a free evening to spend with my advance, I found to my chagrin that I didn’t instantly fall in love. This was not at all what I wanted. I confided in a close friend, expressing my solipsistic doubt.
“Don’t you always do this?” she asked skeptically.
“Yes, I do.”
It was true. Black Letter Days, Devil’s Workshop, Show Me Your Tears—the run of bluesy, countrified rock records the prolific songwriter made with the now-defunct Frank Black and the Catholics in the early 2000s—as well as the albums he later recorded with notable session musicians in Nashville (Honeycomb and Fast Man Raider Man), had elicited the same initial trepidation before I came to regard them as favorites. Is it the defense mechanism of an impassioned fan to dismiss something off the bat rather than invest high hopes and risk greater disappointment? Or is it evidence of Francis’s understated genius that his best songs take time to reveal themselves, their nuance and maddening catchiness a reward for repeated listens? (Devil’s Workshop is an object lesson in this phenomenon.) I’ve had more earworms from the Pixies and various Black solo projects than any other artists, but it’s been awhile.
When Head Carrier finally clicked, I went berserk.
Damn if it wasn’t satisfying to hear Black Francis’s voice come in over the title track, one whose churning guitar and bass onslaught bears traces of DNA from another monstrous album opener, Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine.” It was a well-placed moment, the firing of all four cylinders and Thompson and company consecrating the album as their return. And the same for “Baals Back,” a full-on screamer in the style of “Rock Music” that I had wondered if Thompson still had in him. If years of spaz-outs have scraped a layer or two of mania from Thompson’s maturing vocal cords, his yell is still a standard-bearer, and I can’t wait to hear it live. But the track I feel most compelled to write about is “Oona.” It is Teenager of the Year–level infectious, with a big chorus that makes you stop what you’re doing, move around, and sing along.
“Talent” is another high mark, with a racing, urgent tempo that reminds me a bit of Black’s contribution to the PowerPuff Girls soundtrack back in 2000, oddball storytelling and all. “I met this real cool dude today. Looking like Jack Palance, he said I wanna get through to you and help you find your talent.” “Classic Masher,” “Might As Well Be Gone,” and “Bel Esprit” are twinkly pop excursions a la Doolittle’s well known tracks, while “All I Think About Now” evokes one of the most well known cuts from Surfer Rosa. Actually, it doesn’t just evoke, its riff sounds uncannily like that of “Where Is My Mind?” But just as I’m imagining an exploding skyline and the closing credits of David Fincher’s Fight Club, bassist Paz Lenchantin’s vocals, written by Thompson as a thank-you to Kim Deal, take a familiar rhythm in an entirely different, poignant direction: “If I could go to the beginning, I would be another way, make it better for today,. Remember when we were happy? If I’m late, can I thank you now?”
It’s a bit unfair that I’ve discussed the record thus far strictly in terms of Thompson. Though the songwriting is saturated with his fingerprints, the Pixies’ signature sound has always been the sum of its members. Deal’s bass, breathy vocals, and amazing command of the stage were inextricable to the music they crafted in their college rock radio heyday, as were the contributions of guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. But her successor, Paz, has filled that difficult role with her own indomitable basslines and pretty vocals that work well to counter Thompson’s howls, croons, and fancifully unhinged intonations. To my ears, this is a fine continuation of the Pixies’ legacy.
I enjoyed Indie Cindy, finding it to improve with age, but it has yet to leave me with my mouth agape and ecstatic. It never led me to invite over friends and turn the stereo up to full volume. On the new album, I didn’t just want cryptic lyrics and Biblical allusions and pretty pop songs matched by bursts of lunatic ferocity. I wanted songs that would catch me off-guard and knock me on my ass. And I think I got them.