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Doolittle: Pixies’ Metaphysical Masterpiece

written by: on February 10, 2012

How do you describe something like Doolittle? Maybe you should start with the basics and work your way up.

In 1986, Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis), Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering formed a band. The band was called Pixies. Pixies produced four albums before tension between band members caused a split in 1993. The second album was called Doolittle. It was released on April 18, 1989.

Doolittle might be the best thing to come from the 1980s because it doesn’t sound like it comes from the ’80s (draped in plastic or washed out with cheesy, oceanic synths). In fact, it doesn’t sound like it comes from any particular decade. Doolittle is an island; it’s unlike anything you have heard or anything you ever will hear, perfect and abstracted from any notion of time.

Rather, Doolittle exists in paradox. Its sound somehow mixes smooth surf rock and heavily distorted grunge with occasional hits of country western, heavy metal or funeral dirges for good measure. Lead vocalist and disputed frontman Francis coos, screams, chirps, yelps, belches, strains, huffs, puffs and blows the house down all over the record. But while he is busy making his gooey ruckus, Deal works to keep the music grounded in reality. Her backing vocals are almost poppy—a reassuring voice that counters Francis’ volatile one—and her constant, simple basslines keep the songs on track as blazingly distorted guitar riffs burn in and out of sequence.

Doolittle is like the eye of a storm: it can be temporarily calm but it lurches violently, and danger and death are always close, even during the most peaceful respite.

It would be easy to mistake all that noise as something that is mindless or brutish, but Doolittle is surprisingly dense. From obscure art house allusions (intro track “Debaser” refers to a movie by Salvador Dalí), to retelling biblical parables (“Gouge Away” refers to the story of Samson, whose eyeballs are gouged out by his enemies), Doolittle is always layered with hidden meanings, lessons and messages.

Even the album’s most conventional songs subvert initial expectations. Seemingly straightforward love song “La La Love You” is actually a parody of the oversimplification of romance, and the super catchy “Here Comes Your Man” is about homeless men dying during the California earthquakes.

Doolittle may not be a proper concept album, but close examination reveals an underlying theme. This may sound pretentious, but the album really is a study of metaphysics, the science of being. Although songs often use Biblical references or heavy intellectual allusions, they are ultimately attempts at making sense of ordinary living, the experience of being alive.

“Prithee my dear, why are we here?/Nobody knows, we go to sleep/As breathing slows, my mind secedes,” sings Francis on “I Bleed.” And while sometimes it may be difficult to decipher these messages underneath all the manic noise, it’s always worthwhile because they are poignant and meaningful, and they relate to our individual experiences in a personal, touching way. The music is fantastic, but the messages are what make Doolittle an important record even 25 years after its initial release. It is an album that everyone needs to experience.

How do you describe something like Doolittle? It can’t really be done. Instead, just give it a listen, and try to understand what music can really do, what all music should strive to do: be personable, be fun, be sad or be absolutely insane.

Pixies – Doolittle tracklist:

  1. “Debaser”
  2. “Tame”
  3. “Wave of Mutilation”
  4. “I Bleed”
  5. “Here Comes Your Man”
  6. “Dead”
  7. “Monkey Gone to Heaven”
  8. “Mr. Grieves”
  9. “Crackity Jones”
  10. “La La Love You”
  11. “No 13 Baby”
  12. “There Goes My Gun”
  13. “Hey”
  14. “Silver”
  15. “Gouge Away”
  • Peter

    So true. Great piece on the Pixies