Following a gruelling and self-destructive tour supporting their 1989 masterpiece Doolittle, Pixies were on the brink of collapse. Nervous exhaustion from consistent gigging plus bitter in-fighting between Black Francis and Kim Deal led to the band teetering on the edge of disintegration. Somehow, they managed to produce a record of pure surf rock brilliance with their highly underrated Bossanova.
Doolittle’s ‘Fuck or Fight’ tour was stressful to say the least. At least once lead singer Black Francis threw his guitar at bassist Kim Deal during a concert in Frankfurt. Lead guitarist Joey Santiago explained that the two “kinda stopped talking” following the mammoth tour. This simmering tension led to the band going on hiatus in order to recuperate, with Santiago and drummer David Lovering going on vacation and Francis and Deal focusing on solo projects. Eventually they would produce their strangest, most oddball, and most accessible album.
Bossanova stands as Pixies’ most accessible and bizarre album, a record that takes all of the band’s unique elements and distils them to simplicity.
The story of Pixies is one as old as time. At the time of Bossanova’s inception, the band were already making waves, and innumerable artists were describing them as their favourite band. They had already produced two incendiary records that broke the mould of classic rock, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle. The defined separation between quiet and loud dynamics along with surrealist lyrics that covered topics rarely touched upon (does anybody really talk about slicing up eyeballs?) allowed the band not just to pave their own path, but also create something completely original.
Francis described Pixies’ sound as a combination of light and dark:
“Those are the two basic components of rock music… the dreamy side and the rockin’ side. It’s always been either sweaty or laid back and cool. We do try to be dynamic, but it’s dumbo dynamics, because we don’t know how to do anything else. We can play loud or quiet – that’s it.”
Franics also explained his lyrical influences to Melody Maker, saying “It’s all those characters in the Old Testament. I’m obsessed with them. Why it comes out so much I don’t know.”
The band’s first two albums created Pixies’ path and sound, but where would they go from there? Following Doolittle’s chaotic tour in which the band were too exhausted to even attend their own afterparty, they needed a fresh, laidback take on their sound. Sadly, the recording for their new album was anything but laidback.
All members of the band moved to Los Angeles, apart from Deal who was busy recording her own band The Breeders’ first album. Problems began when the band’s recording desk could not be worked on after 6pm, due to it picking up pirate radio stations which would effect every recording. Producer Gil Norton attempted to rectify the problem only to be faced with a new problem. Each time a guitar was plugged into a recording desk, the room would shake due to an undefined hum. All attempts at recording were fruitless.
Along with these technical difficulties, the band had no songs prepared, opting to write on the fly during the sessions. Francis would sometimes be so unprepared that he would scrawl new lyrics onto a napkin only minutes before the vocal take. He would later explain, “I was writing lyrics on napkins five minutes before I sang. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. That’s just the nature of that songwriting.”
Bossanova is a more refined and structured album than anything the band had attempted previously. A strange amalgamation of surf and space rock, the record feels as a though it was created by aliens who had only been shown The Beach Boys. Warped melody and a woozy four-on-the-floor feel lends itself to the band, however Bossanova pushes these elements to their strangest territories.
Following the pure aggression and terror of their first records, Bossanova is a simpler and more straightforward (if that’s the word you would use) version of the Pixies’ formula. Singles Velouria and Dig for Fire are perfect surf rock gems that stand side by side with the band’s best. However, it’s the intermittent tracks which give Bossanova it’s uncharacteristic feel. Instrumental opener Cecilia Ann is quickly followed by Rock Music, a volley that runs by so quickly that they’re over before they even really begin.
Is She Weird, All Over the World and The Happening encapsulate the band’s new surf feel, bending basic blues chord changes into strange space pop amalgamations. Possibly the most beautiful song in the band’s catalogue another of their greatest outliers, Ana defines Bossanova. This is a band who, in their short career, had already become worn out. The song’s lyrics read:
She’s my fave, undressing in the sun
Return to sea, bye, forgetting everyone
Eleven high, ride a wave
It spins the band towards their eventual conclusion, a wave slowly ridden to their own demise. Pixies would only produce one more album during their initial run, Trompe Le Monde, a return to the heavier and more rock orientated stylings of their first albums. This has further pushed Bossanova into outlier territory.
Decades on from its original release, Bossanova feels just as strange and fresh. This is a weird, creepy, and odd album recorded while a band was falling apart. What they managed to churn out was a record of brilliant surf rock madness that helped to reflect the band’s more eclectic elements. Leave your old copies of Doolittle and Surfer Rosa for a little bit, and go back and rediscover this morphed gem of a record. Pixies were never your ordinary band, and on Bossanova, they tried for the first time in their career to show you they were flawed as well.
Check out the band’s 30th Anniversary Reissue of the record right here.