There are some cult classics that could have been hits, and then there are albums like “Doolittle.” Released 25 years ago today, the sophomore effort from wily Boston space cadets Pixies was never going to shift major units, and the fact that it spent two weeks at No. 98 on the Billboard 200 is some kind of miracle. Sweet and melodic in spots, absolutely brutal in others, it’s the cryptic record about death and god that Black Flag and the Ventures might make should they ever find themselves on the same interstellar pleasure cruise. It’s brilliant, and it’s not for everyone. But in the pre-Nirvana alternative rock world of 1989, the album was heralded as a landmark -- a release that inspired and ultimately helped pave the way for a slew of bands that would become arena-filling, chart-topping megastars in the mid-'90s.
One guy who famously dug it was Kurt Cobain, and as Nirvana fans well know, the quiet-loud-quiet dynamic shifts found all over “Doolittle” set the template for much of “Nevermind.” Kurt’s affinity for this record has become a big part of its story, but the other subplots are just as interesting. In their prime, Pixies were like a freaky alt-rock version of the Fantastic Four, and here, their powers combine in some truly bizarre ways.
Up front, you’ve got Thing-like singer and rhythm guitarist Black Francis, a wordy, worldly bellower with apocalyptic visions and a colorful way of interpreting the bible. To his right, there’s lead guitarist Joey Santiago, the Silver Surfer in search of new sounds to devour. Over there is bassist Kim Deal, the Not-Quite-Invisible Woman, whose plodding eighth notes and sugary background vocals give so many of these songs their much-needed smidgeon of prettiness. Behind her is Dave Lovering, a Human Torch of a drummer who secretly wants to sing groaner love ballads in airport bars.
If “Doolittle” were a movie, it’d be a Marvel summer blockbuster directed by David Lynch. Thankfully, it’s an album—a one-of-a-kind masterpiece Pixies never quite matched. Scroll down to read our track-by-track review.
“Debaser”: Essentially, it’s a film recommendation. “Got me a movie I want you to know!” shouts Black Francis in the opening line, just after Deal’s killer 16-note bass intro. As the track progresses, he gets more and more worked up, like a nerdy video-store clerk who won’t let you leave without the VHS tape clutched lovingly to his bosom. What’s this cackling cinephile on about? “Un Chien Andalou,” a 1929 surrealist flick whose most unforgettable scene inspires this sicko-pop gem’s most memorable phrase: “slicing up eyeballs.”
“Tame”: It’s at about the 20-second mark that Cobain must have had his eureka moment, as that’s when Francis goes from whisper to scream and the whole track erupts. Apparently, the singer thinks his lady is a bit too plain, so he and the gang hit her with a double-barrel blast of crazy. Then they reload and do it again—all in the span of 1:56.
“Wave of Mutilation”: In the first verse, the narrator offs himself by driving his car into the sea, but since this is a Pixies song, that’s not the end of the story. He goes on to smooch some mermaids and search in vain for the Mariana Trench, the deepest, darkest part of the world’s oceans. Even in the blackness, this sing-songy ode to self-destruction would glow as warm and bright as a beach bonfire.
“I Bleed”: It’s hard to imagine Weezer’s “Undone – The Sweater Song” existing without this creeping rumination on god-knows-what. The out-of-sync vocal interplay between ranting Francis and deadpan Deal echoes the music, which goes from tranquil to thrashing in a cool 2:40.
“Here Comes Your Man”: In a perfect world, this would have been Pixies’ “Stand,” that goofy trifle that demystified R.E.M. and finally got them noticed outside of college-rock circles. Maybe audiences could tell Francis’ deceptively sunny ditty is actually about the calm that precedes a catastrophic earthquake?
“Dead”: The biblical story of David and Bathsheba gets an awesome retelling with this tune—a screeching, grinding thing that opens up midway through and reveals itself to be a feel-good groover. “What do you know?” Francis asks, just before the guitars get all serrated again. Good question.
“Monkey Gone to Heaven”: Had Francis come along 3,000 years earlier, he’d have been a prophet, not a rocker. Here, he offers up some enigmatic Old Testament-style numerology, telling us “man is five,” “the devil is six,” and “god is seven.” There’s eerie beauty behind his doomy rambling, even when he’s foretelling ecological disaster with those lines about the sludge in New York and New Jersey.
“Mr. Grieves”: It’s back to the ocean with this surf-punk puzzler. “What’s that floating in the water?” Francis asks, just before Santiago’s up-stroked reggae chords turn fuzzy and the lyrics get even fuzzier. Francis keeps saying that he hopes “everything is alright,” but he’s clearly relishing whatever strangeness has crept over the coast.
“Crackity Jones”: It’s always a good time when Francis sings in Spanish, though no one’s having more fun that Lovering, who puts a menacing hardcore-punk beat behind Santiago’s demonic Dick Dale riffing. The former roommate Francis reportedly wrote the tune about must have been a real character.
“La La Love You”: This is what passes for a sex jam on Planet Pixie. Hamming it up in the role of frontman, Lovering tries for crooner but comes off more like Cameron in that “Ferris Bueller” scene where he calls Principal Rooney and pretends to be Sloan’s dad.
“No. 13 Baby”: Arriving, appropriately enough, two tracks before the real No. 13, the album’s eleventh cut is perhaps the most skippable, if only because they do the delayed-detonation thing better elsewhere. At 3:51, it’s also the longest song on “Doolittle,” and the extra time gives Santiago a chance to step out front and melt some minds as only he can.
“There Goes My Gun”: Someone’s making off with Francis’ firearm, and while this might seem like cause for concern, he and Deal shrug it off with their shared vocal. Musically, Pixies are in surf-noir mode, hanging ten in the pale moonlight, so maybe they figure the gun thief won’t have much luck firing the thing in water.
“Hey”: Santiago does his version of funky blues as Francis returns to the bible for inspiration. “Is this the sound that the mother makes when her finger breaks?” Francis asks, as if he’s not even sure what to make of the unholy racket he and his bandmates are making.
“Silver”: A tumbleweed blows across the landscape as Francis and Deal play make-believe gunfighters over a spooky Spaghetti Western backing. Just when you thought they were making a space epic, they cowboy up. Figures.
“Gouge Away”: “Doolittle” starts with slicing, so it might as well end with gouging. The thrilling finale is apparently about Samson and Delilah, but it feels as surreal as “Debaser.” Just like that, we’re back at square one, super confused but ready to grab a distortion pedal and start a band.