A sense of “What if?” hangs over the career of Kim Deal. It seems a strange thing to say about someone who’s been a member of not one but two seminal rock bands, an alt-rock figure so beloved that journalists unironically open profiles of her with the words “It is not possible to overstate the importance of Kim Deal” and to whom everyone from Kurt Cobain to Courtney Barnett has paid homage.
Nevertheless – what if Pixies frontman Black Francis had acceded to Cobain’s public suggestion that he “allow” Deal to write more songs for the band? The Pixies’ later albums would have been bolstered by the material that Deal used in her side project the Breeders, the band’s internal strife might have pacified, and arguably the most influential rock band of the 80s might have ended up as commercially successful as they were critically acclaimed.
And what if the Breeders hadn’t dissolved in dissolute chaos after their second album, 1993’s Last Splash, sold a million copies? Who’s to say they wouldn’t have ascended to the kind of perennial arena-packing success enjoyed by some of their peers? They certainly had the songs, and in Deal a frontwoman so self-possessed and charismatic she didn’t need to do anything much beyond get on stage in her everyday clothes to magnetise an audience.
Instead, there was rehab, a lineup that one member left “for my own mental health”, sporadic, understated subsequent albums – 2002’s minimal Title TK and 2008’s introspective Mountain Battles – and the consolation that, as Breeders producer Steve Albini noted, the “whole deal could have turned out infinitely worse”: among their contemporary graduates from alt-rock cultdom to platinum success were Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. Now, the lineup that made Last Splash has reassembled, bassist Josephine Wiggs marking her return with an icy, perfectly enunciated vocal on MetaGoth, her voice at odds with the warm, husky intimacy of Kim and Kelley Deal’s harmonies.
It’s tempting to say that the lost years hang heavy over some of the songs on All Nerve – “I hit the hull, oh God, I hit them all, you don’t know how far I would go,” run the lyrics of the title track – but equally, it’s a brave listener who starts making confident assertions about what any of the songs on All Nerve are about. From the Pixies 1988 classic Gigantic onwards, Deal has specialised in lyrics that manage to be both haunting and elusive, and All Nerve is no exception, throwing up far more questions than answers. Do the words that float over the lulling, hypnotic bassline and torpid guitars make Walking With the Killer (a song Deal first recorded solo five years ago) a latter-day murder ballad told from the viewpoint of the victim – “I didn’t know it was my night to die, but it really was” – or something less straightforward, more metaphorical? Is Blues at the Acropolis really a stern bewailing of the lack of reverence shown by tourists for ancient monuments? What’s going on in Skinhead #2, which opens with the simultaneously striking and baffling line: “I need spit to crush these beetles on my lips”?
All this is set to music that is rich and deep and repays repeated listening. All the Breeders’ trademarks are here: the guitar lines that sit at unexpected angles to the chords, the shifts from light to dark, the curious sense of humour. (“I always struggle with the right word,” sings Deal on Wait in the Car, before proving her point by mewing like a cat.) But there’s nothing as sunlit and immediate as Last Splash’s Divine Hammer. All Nerve lasts barely half an hour, which means the odd longueur stands out – a cover of Amon Düül II’s Archangel Thunderbird is fun rather than essential, although it’s certainly intriguing how perfectly Pixies-like the track’s ancient, angular krautrock riff is.
The album isn’t intense in the “raging guitar noise” sense of the phrase. Songs frequently unravel into stillness before gathering themselves up again, and there’s something tense and deliberately contained about even the brashest stuff here. You expect opener Nervous Mary to explode cathartically, but it never does; Spacewoman switches from quiet to loud in patent style, but does so at an oozing pace. The best material might be the most spectral: Walking With the Killer and the beautiful, barely-there shimmer of Dawn: Making An Effort. But there’s a real concentrated power about its sound, which is intimate and raw, befitting its title: the vocals close-miked, the band recorded in such a way that they sound as if they’re playing live a few feet away from you. For an album full of space and silence, it’s remarkably relentless and weighty – maybe not the stuff of arena-packing success after all, but formidable enough that, while it plays, what ifs seem beside the point.
This week Alexis listened to
Tracey Thorn: Sister (Andrew Weatherall Remix) Assisted by the vocals of Corinne Bailey Rae, Weatherall turns the standout track from Tracey Thorn’s new album into ghostly, dubbed-out slow motion electro-disco.