These indie-rock heroes have chosen a good time to return to the fray, seeing as how women currently produce the world’s best rock n’ roll. The last time The Breeders made music was in 2008, although you’d be forgiven for forgetting about that year’s Mountain Battles. The last time they made a great album was way back in 1993, with the oddball classic Last Splash, which featured “Cannonball” and many other gems from an eccentric array of genres (I’ve always been drawn to the countrified “Drivin’ on 9”, which I can’t quite believe has never appeared on the soundtrack for a quirky Sundance indie film).
All Nerve has drawn some excitement for being a Last Splash reunion of sorts: it’s the first time that that album’s lineup has ever been duplicated on record (with Kim and her sister Kelley Deal on guitars, Josephine Wiggs on bass, and Jim MacPherson on drums).
Sadly, it’s nowhere near in the same league. Damp squib of an opener “Nervous Mary” lets you down early, and I guess you should thank it for lowering expectations. Kim Deal’s impenetrable lyrics are really done no favours by the straight-ahead rock groove; they require something more eccentric. Or perhaps just a faster tempo – “Wait in the Car” follows it with equally simple riffage, yet generates more heat via speed-induced friction. It’s a deserved, if misleading, lead single, a fiery anthem-of-sorts.
It’s misleading because elsewhere the pace slows down to a crawl. “Spacewoman” floats around in zero gravity, using reverb pedals to create an air of mystery that never goes anywhere even as the guitars crunch and bluster in the chorus. “Walking With a Killer” sounds more like sleepwalking to me, although it gets in some of Deal’s better vocal lines on the album. And “Howl at the Summit” actually comes across as more of a whimper (despite Courtney Barnett guesting), disappointingly given just how much we need to holler at the supposed “summit” of the human race, a.k.a. those in power, right now.
All of these songs come midway through, killing any hopes there might have been that All Nerve would contain any tunes as indelible as the ones on Last Splash. But then comes “Archangel’s Thunderbird” with its punchy opening and syncopated beat, courtesy of an on-form MacPherson. Along with “Wait in the Car” it’s the only real keeper on the album, an undeniably weird yet thriving song that gets plenty of forward thrust from its rhythm section and runs with it.
Overall, All Nerve is professionally produced and adequately performed, and it’s never bad per se, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. Kim’s a big deal in indie-rock-loving circles for good reason, and her musical instincts have previously been strong enough to paper over her weakest area, which are the lyrics. Yet here their indecipherable dullness (you can’t understand the words and don’t particularly care to spend time working them out) are exposed by the lack of good enough licks, choruses, and instrumental interplay to cover them up.
There’s a lot of dark imagery, to be sure. Perhaps that will impress some people. Me, I’m annoyed by lines such as “Smiling skulls tonguing the burn/Our haunted throats rally”, even if it is a call to arms against the smiling fascists that have emerged under Trump, as I suspect it is. This is no time for vagueness in politics or in political music; let’s call a fascist a fascist and be done with it. Then we can stop hiding behind metaphors and start working together on how exactly to defeat them.
There are worse lyrics, though. Elsewhere we’re told “I need spit/To crush these beetles on my lips”, and the album ends with the absurd “Capital sister, I cry and then I blister on the mount/I got the blues at the Acropolis”. The pseudo-literary pretensions all add up to the point where it becomes genuinely irritating to give the album a close listen.
It’s a little dispiriting, given the glow that can still be felt around The Breeders’ older music, to realise that All Nerve is a band reunion with precious little to recommend about it. Like a cannonball, it will sink in the sea of this year’s music, soon to be forgotten. Let’s just hope it’s not the band’s last splash.