The title song is steeped in the story of the Christian martyr Saint Denis who while the Bishop of Paris was decapitated and as the mythology goes picked up his own head and walked six miles while preaching a sermon of repentance. The track is big, dirty and brash in the best Pixies way and sounds so incredibly potent without feeling over produced. In a direct effort to shake things up Black Francis and Joey Santiago decided to move away from the familiarity of famed Liverpool Producer Gil Norton who worked on 1991's Trompe Le Monde, 1989's Doolittle, 1990's Bossanova and 2014's Indie Cindy (and related EP1 and EP2) to another English producer Tom Dalgety (Royal Blood, Killing Joke, Opeth).
This desire to move out of their comfort zone, to step up as it were has resulted in a defining record full of songs that have that Pixies proto punk punch but also have a sense of playfulness and new beginnings. It feels like Black Francis and the crew has once again found that youthful exuberance. Take, for example, the track Classic Masher with the half time drum beat done in that "Be My Baby" Ronettes sort of way. It conjures up an almost 60's sock hop torture tone while feeling earnest in an Americana rock kind of way. I mean Bruce Springsteen could do this song and it wouldn't sound odd. I say this not in a derisive way, the song hooked me in immediately with the sweet non pretentious vibe and jubilant chorus.
Might As Well Be Gone also has a decidedly heartbroken sound tucked in the mid tempo heavy bass and beat, "We could meet tonight, but you're only a ghost... you might as well be gone." Don't get me wrong, the albums tone is not all hazy eyed and dreamy. In Baal's Back, a heavy full lean in rocker, Black Francis spews venom like only a wronged vengeful deity could do. The dude can still scream like no other. On the track Talent the Pixies jam and rip in and around this Stranglers inspired rocker. When you listen to a song like Tenement Song it has so many individual killer parts. Joey's guitar lines amidst all the fury is ridiculous, just fucking ridiculous as are the Lovering's drums and Paz's walking bass lines. Come to think of it, Joey's guitar work is so utterly creative and ferocious on this album that Baal's Back might just be about him in all his rock God glory.
My favorite song (at the time of this review ) is by far Bel Esprit. From the building intro with pretty guitar sounds that tweak and harmonize with each other to Black Francis and Paz's back and forth and then together vocals to Joey Santiago's cool guitar melodies and Lovering's solid drumming Bel Esprit is a beautiful swaying production. Apart from deciphering the code of the lyrics, plastic crucifix and all, there is something so uplifting here in the sound. This song is a big wide smile whether it is hiding something dark or not.
While Bel Esprit could not exist without Paz Lenchantin's vocal counterpoint it is the following track All I Think About Now that solidifies her entre into the Pixies. Washed in a nostalgic Surfer Rosa sound and written by Black Francis and Paz and sung solely by Paz it feels like a homage to the Pixies of years ago as well as a wide wet eyed look forward, "I try to think about tomorrow, but I always think about the past" and "Remember when we were happy? If I'm late can I thank you now?" The opening lead guitar evokes the lead lines of Where Is My Mind. Joey Santiago's stunningly simple B and E strings lead accompaniment was /is perfection and must be one of the most recognizable licks in rock history. Again that kind of perfect simplicity is an addictive hook in All I think About Now. I am not sure if this is a nod to the past but it makes for wonderfully wistful sound. Paz's vocal performance is smoothly somber and there is a touch of fatalism in her starry eyed approach. This song feels like Paz's girl scout oath into the Pixies club. She brings a ballsy sweetness to the band.
Black Francis sings, "I see her body swaying I hear her fingers playing... her parlor grand. Please I wanna be in your band" in the cagey and so catchy Oona. Love this track and am intrigued by it's story. It's got big guitars and creates an abstract dynamic atmosphere. A Pixies record would not be complete with a dip into the shallow (or deep if you prefer) distractions of life and so we have the exploration of rural roadside prostitution in Belgium and France in Um Chagga Lagga. The song seriously jams hard and I flash on Isla De Encanta from Come On Pilgrim hard with the free wheeling beserk sound of this track. I also am feeling that Stranglers vibe here (?).
Plaster Of Paris completes the circle of Christian martydom. "I can't dance but I don't wanna bore ya... last line from the cephalaphore (Saint Denis)" and while this song ties up loose ends thematically, it (for me) doesn't connect with me as much as the others. The last track All The Saints is so very dreamy (is that an organ or guitar?) and feels like a swan song of sorts. It has those eternal questions that really don't need answers, "Wondering why I'm still here... too many times I had fear trying to be near you."
Over the past few months the Pixies have released a few of these songs. Some I loved and some not so much. Hearing Head Carrier in it's totality and any reservations I had over this album have disappeared. Upon first listen I fell in love with it and with each listen (8 times in a row thus far) it gets better, bigger and deeper each and every time. Over the years the Pixies songs have become somewhat less lyrically abstract, and Head Carrier obviously has softer edges overall than the violent imagery of Surfer Rosa but there is still dysfunction, political and personal subversion and perversion residing in the lyrics. The sound on Head Carrier- the melodies and progressions have a tenderness and sweet vibe to them bending some of the inherent ordeals of life into something poignant. Head Carrier also feels like more than just an album, it feels like a stellar introduction to the newest Pixie and a farewell to a former Pixie who walked away. It feels like some kind of bright new beginning. The songs on Head Carrier are full of that furious stormy ocean that is and always will be the Pixies sound. This time around that tumultuous sea calms enough to be reflective.
Head Carrier drops September 30th, 2016
AP Essential tracks: Bel Esprit, Oona, Might As Well Be Gone, Tenement Song, All I Think About Now, Classic Masher, Head Carrier, All The Saints, Talent
You can hear the entire album on Youtube here.
My babbling review on Youtube