Doolittle — The Pixies’ third album and big-label debut — was one of 1989’s most acclaimed releases; it garnered truckloads of critical hosannas for its disturbing, dizzying variations on alternative-guitar-rock themes. For the follow-up, the Boston foursome could have kept drawing from the same well, but Bossanova is a pretty far cry from its predecessor.
This time, the Pixies have left certain of their attention-grabbing college-band antics behind. Gone, for instance, are the macabre (and often misleading) song titles once favored by singer, songwriter and chief instigator Black Francis. And the Pixies do not ricochet all over the stylistic map, as they did on Doolittle. Bossanova is more of a straight-ahead rock album — by the Pixies’ standards, meaning it’s still safely off the mainstream.
Joey Santiago’s body-slamming guitars, Kim Deal’s measured, penetrating bass and David Lovering’s elemental drums sound denser and tougher than before, but some things haven’t changed. Francis’s surreal lyrics are, as always, open to conjecture; even he has stated he doesn’t entirely understand them. “Is She Weird” might be about a prostitute; “The Happening” might be about aliens landing in Las Vegas; “Down to the Well” is probably about sex. But content is almost incidental to these songs; what stands out is the beat that throbs like a hangover, the fever-dream atmospherics, the pelvis-grinding abandon. Elsewhere, a classic Black Francis larynx shredder, “Rock Music,” is off-set by the fanciful album closer, “Havalina,” in which the Pixies’ voices seem to echo dreamily around a canyon. Potent and compelling, Bossanova leaves the listener curiously anticipating the Pixies’ next move.