Album: Beneath the Eyrie
Released: September 13th, 2019
Highlights: In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain, Catfish Kate, Silver Bullet, St. Nazaire, Daniel Boone
The ominous nest on the cover. The gloomy title. The fact it was recorded inside an isolated church somewhere in upstate New York. All signs seem to indicate that the Pixies, in their seventh overall studio album and third since their return, have suddenly gone gothic. And greeted with the somewhat surprising keyboard, one that would not be out of place in The Cure’s “Disintegration”, that accompanies the rising guitar of opener “In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain”, listeners may buy into that notion and have it partially confirmed when seeing that the following track on the batting order is named “On Graveyard Hill”. “Beneath the Eyrie”, however, does not follow through on that initially suggested thematic, presenting no major stylistic shift to those who are familiar with the band. And that is just about fine.
At this point in their career, the Pixies are unlikely to gain many new fans or break into some revelatory ground. They are not bound to come upon another “Surfer Rosa” or “Doolittle”, records that would go on to influence a new generation of musicians and all the ones that would follow. Likewise, it is highly improbable they will bring back into the fold former fans who think the band should not continue to exist when Kim Deal, their iconic bassist, is out of the picture. Right now, the Pixies are writing, recording, and touring for the converted: those who are able to accept the notion that the group is – and has always been – a vehicle for the songwriting of Black Francis to be broadcast as it is accompanied by the signature guitar playing of Joey Santiago, the tight drumming of David Lovering, and a talented female bassist and vocalist who is able to provide some sweet harmonies and is unafraid to occasionally take center stage. And under that guise, “Beneath the Eyrie” is good.
The record is not without its missteps. Age has, obviously and naturally, affected Black Francis’ voice and lyrics, but where the first is – despite far from its past might – still good enough to carry a tune, the second have lost their mythological and surrealistic charm, at times coming off as if they are trying too hard to land on that likable quirky former style. Moreover, out of the twelve songs brought by “Beneath the Eyrie”, three of them rank close to the bottom of the band’s output: the oddly theatrical “This Is My Fate”, whose only saving grace is how it aims for a new niche for the Pixies; the pedestrian “Ready for Love”, which does have a pleasant Santiago guitar break; and “Birds of Prey”, where Francis talks dully and the melodic combination of Paz’s backing vocals and Joey’s little licks fails as a hook due to how it is closer to annoying than to catchy.
Everywhere else, though, “Beneath the Eyrie” is safely above average. It goes without saying that such a mark is not quite good enough for a band that had a nigh immaculate original run of four records; and in the sense that the album certainly does not keep up with any of the members of that stellar quartet, it surely leaves the door open for arguments that mention a tarnished legacy and a pointless release. However, in the sense that the Pixies are a rock band and that “Beneath the Eyrie” is a rock record, what stands is the fact that their seventh effort is a mostly fun listen grounded on what the group does well, which is using punk guitars, aggressive grooves, bare-bones instrumentation, and an idiosyncratic match of lyrics and vocals to support pop melodies that surf the waves of constant shifts between quietness and loudness.
The usual suspects are all here. In “St. Nazaire”, the Pixies go hardcore, Black Francis screams without a care in the world, and Santiago finds a riff that is mean enough to evoke hellish images. Meanwhile, “On Graveyard Hill” and “Catfish Kate” employ the most well-known of the band’s recipes: verses anchored on raw bass and drums that eventually are pulled into exploding catchy choruses, with the difference being that in the first the Pixies lean towards the punk and in the second they step into the pop by adorning the cut with acoustic strums and an almost wishful melody. “Long Rider” does not stray too far away from that mold, even if it bets more heavily in the harmonization between Francis and Paz and on a darker tone in its verses, which evaporates by the time it gears up to the refrain. Other cards that the Pixies have pulled during their run, but that are not as common as these, also show up in fine form and in a slightly altered approach.
“Daniel Boone” can be compared to the classic “Motorway to Roswell” given it is – by the band’s standards of song length – a nearly five-minute acoustic epic; only where the track from “Trompe le Monde” was filled with alien guitars and an extraterrestrial plot, the “Beneath the Eyrie” centerpiece is an atmospheric low-gravity slice of lunar beauty. “Los Surfer Muertos”, sung by Paz, could be a great lost cut from “Bossanova”, as it carries the mid-tempo pace and mysterious wide soundscape of that record, being part surf rock on mushrooms and part outer-space weirdness. At last, “Silver Bullet” – a strong contender for the spot of best track in the set – is a western ballad (a theme already explored by “Silver” from “Doolittle”) that musically grasps the tension of a duel in the scorching Sun.
Closing with “Death Horizon, a simple acoustic song that is pleasant enough but not quite sufficiently great to justify the noble position it has in the album’s track list, “Beneath the Eyrie” is not completely solid. It has, after all, some very visible holes that are a bit hard to overlook. It is, however, by almost every single standard in rock music, a good album: its cuts are generally very good and, in their briefness, rarely overstay their welcome; its production brings out the best in the band, only intruding to highlight and bring forth notable aspects of specific songs; and its songwriting is competent even though the pen of Black Francis has clearly seen better days.
Its main problem stems from the fact that one of the few rock standards to which it does not live up is the original sequence of records by the band that made it. It is a curse that plagued “Indie Cindy” and “Head Carrier” before it, and it is a shadow that will engulf – even if partially – everything the Pixies will put out until they call it a day. To those that have fallen to it, “Beneath the Eyrie” will undoubtedly land flat, hitting their ears like the sound of a group that is dragging their legacy through the mud. To those who are still listening, though, it holds a good deal of value and some remarkable gems. And while the former group will, understandably, walk away in disgust; the latter will be happy to know Black Francis, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering are still – Deal or no Deal – doing it and enjoying the massive well-deserved laurels that they should have gotten between 1986 and 1993.