The Pixies’ latter-day music has made people angry, as if the band sought to personally offend some listeners by daring to sidestep the albums the original foursome released between 1988-91. That’s deeply silly, of course, not least because the band’s new material is better than they’ve been given credit for. Sure, the transitional 2014 album Indie Cindy had some patchy moments, and the rapid turnover in bass players, from Kim Deal to Kim Shattuck to Paz Lenchantin, wasn’t the greatest look. Even amid personal turmoil for some of the members since then—rehab for guitarist Joey Santiago in 2016, a recent divorce for singer Black Francis—things seem to have settled down in the band, and The Pixies’ latest is loud, weird and full of hooks. Is it the second coming of Surfer Rosa? No, but it was never going to be.
The band has a different kind of intensity now than it did 30 years ago. They were subversive pioneers back then, marrying sneaky pop melodies to surreal lyrics and abrasive guitars, and their “loud-quiet-loud” musical dynamic became a kind of shorthand for the alt-rock explosion that spilled into the ’90s. They’re still doing those things on Beneath the Eyrie, but the impact is necessarily different—early songs like “Where Is My Mind” or “Wave of Mutilation” are only groundbreaking the first time around, especially when so many subsequent bands have used The Pixies as a frame of reference. The important question, then, for a present-day Pixies album isn’t whether it calls to mind the old stuff, but whether the songs are any good in their own right as Pixies songs. Admittedly, that’s a high bar, but Beneath the Eyrie meets it.
Francis sounds restless and a little bit feral, which is just how you want him. He lets his voice get rougher and more serrated at the end of each verse in “On Graveyard Hill,” sometimes multi-tracking his vocals on certain phrases with a full-throated bellow mixed slightly behind his more restrained lead vocal part, for an eerie, ominous effect that suits a song about an enchantress casting a potentially fatal spell. Atmosphere thus established, the band tears through a surprisingly nimble chorus with a melody that soars above a thicket of churning guitars. Santiago’s lick on the verse has the snap and snarl of an arcing powerline, and Lenchantin’s bass part locks in with drummer David Lovering’s steady beat to keep the whole thing grounded.
The witch in “On Graveyard Hill” isn’t the only supernatural creature on the album: The gnashing surf-western “St. Nazaire” sees a howling Francis become intimate with a “selkie bride,” a reference to a mythological being in Scottish folklore that can transform from seal to human. There’s another human-animal interaction on “Catfish Kate,” which finds Francis at his most tuneful. A ballad in the traditional story-song sense of the word, the track relates the tale of a woman dragged into a river by a giant catfish. After a battle beneath the water, she emerges victorious, “all dressed in catfish clothes.” Though overdriven guitars and some feedback roil beneath the verses, the band mostly plays it straight with a musical arrangement emphasizing the lyrical imagery and an earworm melody that Francis and Lenchantin sing in harmony on the chorus. Francis has said the tale is one his father told him as a kid, though conceptually, it could have been an English folk song from hundreds of years ago.
After the turnover and tension over bass players, it’s clear The Pixies found the right one. Lenchantin has stepped fully into her role in the band on Beneath the Eyrie. She’s an accomplished bassist whose parts accentuate and propel songs without being obtrusive about it, and she sweetens Francis’ elastic yowling throughout when she sings backup. She also enlivens the less compelling songs on the album, blending her voice with Francis’ on the plodding verses to “Ready for Love” (a song saved by Santiago’s savage guitar break), and playing a subtly bouncy bassline on the faux-jaunty “This Is My Fate.” Lenchantin even gets a rare lead vocal on “Los Surfers Muertos,” one of three songs she co-wrote on the album (“On Graveyard Hill” and “Long Rider” are the others). It’s a slow jam with bristling guitars encircling her murky, reverb-soaked voice as she sings about a friend who died in a surfing accident while The Pixies were recording their 2016 album Head Carrier.
Morbid themes aside, Beneath the Eyrie is the most vibrant and alive of the three albums The Pixies have recorded since reemerging in 2004. If it took some growing pains along the way, well, that’s frankly better than rehashing the old days to the point of self-parody. The band has reached a point where it can reference the past without feeling beholden to it, while forging an increasingly solid present, and that’s nothing to be angry about.