Head Carrier, the Pixies’ sixth album and second since reuniting in 2003, shows a more confident and mature band. After the critical failure of the reunion album Indie Cindy in 2014, the band shows a willingness to move on, brush off the mistakes, and stop trying to relive the glory of their classic releases.
Though the Pixies never broke into the mainstream or had a big hit to their name, they carry a legacy of influencing countless chart-topping alternative acts. Many of those stylistic influences – the stop-start and loud-soft dynamics, the explosive choruses, the intricate harmonies – are found on the album, but in smaller doses and a more subdued form. The songs are less abrasive, less quirky, and more finely polished. Head Carrier lacks the gritty intensity of the band’s best early work, but it also lacks the nonsensical throwaway tracks of the band at its worst.
The title track kicks off the album with catchy midtempo rock and violent lyrics that belie its easy sound. Two songs later, “Baal’s Back” is the Pixies at their most aggressive, with Black Francis growling warnings from the ancient pagan god and biblical villain, Baal. “People, when the sky is turning black you’ll know that it’s me,” he screams over snarling distorted guitars.
“Oona” has the album’s best riffing. Francis and lead guitarist Joey Santiago trade intertwining licks during the verses before transitioning to grungy power chords for the chorus. Francis skewers the music scene with a tale of blind devotion. “Oona, I will await destruction,” he sings before bragging, “My owner; I’m Oona’s.”
“Um Chagga Lagga” and “Talent” provide much needed injections of energy after a few quieter and slower tracks. The latter is a tongue-in-cheek admiration of a self-proclaimed up-and-coming star. “He said that if I had a certain style then stuff would start to happen,” Francis sings. “He said that soon he was going away ’cause he’s a major talent.”
“All I Think About Now” is one of Head Carrier’s most interesting tracks. It begins with a fuzzy arpeggio and wordless vocals that both invoke 1988 hit “Where Is My Mind.” New bassist Paz Lenchantin takes the lead vocals, singing a thank you to former bassist and co-vocalist Kim Deal, who left the band in 2013. “I always think about the past, about the things that didn’t last,” Lenchantin sings, her voice eerily similar to Deal’s. “I remember we were happy. That’s all I think about now.”
Despite being such an influential band, each of the Pixies’ albums is flawed in some way. With Head Carrier, the flaw is that it’s too safe and lacks the quirkiness and experimentation of the band’s earlier releases. Its strength is in its tighter songwriting, clearer focus, and a willingness to accept that the band members are now adults.