A legendary band requires more than good songs and a little luck—they also need the right mystique. Yes, it ought to be all about the music, but a group's greatness goes beyond hooks and melodies to something intangible. They embody a movement, a narrative. The Beatles wrote a lot of fantastic tunes, but it's their vision of four pop-friendly lads preaching peace and love that has helped their legend endure. And the Rolling Stones' litany of hits wouldn't mean as much without the sex-and-danger aura Mick and Keith exuded. A band can deliver some indelible anthems, but if the mystique goes away—if, say, we start thinking of the Stones as just some greedy septuagenarians clogging up our arenas—then its unspoken, invisible connection to its adoring audience is severed forever, making their new art considerably less affecting.
Few great bands of the last 30 years have squandered their mystique more than the Pixies. At one point this Boston-born outfit was one of indie-rock's coolest and most influential groups. The Pixies' greatness derived partly from their obscurity. They made bratty, sped-up music in defiance of the mainstream. But by coming back and staying too long in the limelight, the Pixies allowed that aura to dissipate. Years ago, this group mattered because they were too good to last. Now, their problem is they won't leave.
Next week, the band releases Indie Cindy, its first studio album in 23 years. Anticipation has been less than heated. For one, the Pixies sapped their own buzz, releasing these songs on EPs the last seven months. Worse yet, the songs themselves disappoint. They aren't terrible, but their mere existence is problematic. Watching the Pixies try to taste the glory they didn't originally enjoy feels incompatible with why we loved them in the first place.
When the Pixies started out in the mid-1980s, the group excitingly smashed together punk, pop, rock, darkness and oddity. (Their first EP, 1987's Come On Pilgrim, had songs in Spanish and songs about incest, but not the same songs.) Led by frontman Black Francis and bassist/vocalist Kim Deal, whose sweeter voice offered a leavening humanity to the lead singer's sometimes deranged wailings, the Pixies epitomized '80s college-rock. They were smart and strange and fandom of them bestowed a coolness upon the listener. Again, that's nothing to do with the quality of the music, which was considerable, but rather its mystique. Catchier than Sonic Youth and hipper than the era's mainstream metal bands, the Pixies flew under the radar, impressing critics and influencing fellow musicians.
The most prominent of those peers was Kurt Cobain, who wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in homage to them. More than any of the Pixies' modern-rock hits—not the spiky bubblegum pop of "Here Comes Your Man" or the headlong guitar rush of "Gigantic"—the band's greatest calling card with the public might have been this endorsement from Cobain shortly before he killed himself: "When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band—or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard." The world's biggest, greatest rock band drew inspiration for their biggest, greatest song from a college band that most people didn't know. But if you were a fan, you knew.
The Pixies didn't get to capitalize on the shout-out, though. By Cobain's death in 1994, tensions between Francis and Deal had already broken up the quartet, which also included guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering. (Infamously, Francis let the group know of the breakup by fax, which was a really '90s way of doing things.) Deal went on to form the Breeders, Francis pursued solo-career irrelevance under the name Frank Black, and all the while the Pixies' reputation continued to grow as alternative rock went from being a dorm-room secret to something that Time magazine featured on its cover.
Without planning it, the Pixies had accomplished the most important goal in entertainment: ending on a high note. The group's four well-regarded albums and one EP afforded the Pixies a nearly perfect, spotless legacy. Their fans could regale people with stories of seeing them open for U2 during the Zoo TV Tour or get all moony about how 1989's Doolittle changed their lives. The band's absence meant it couldn't interrupt the nonstop rhapsodizing. It took six years for Doolittle to finally go gold, while 1988's Surfer Rosa didn't get there until 2005. Miraculously, the posthumous Pixies were both cool and relatively popular: a modern-day Velvet Underground who never sold well but influenced everybody who came in contact with their music. By the time Fight Club prominently featured "Where Is My Mind?" in its ad campaign in 1999, the Pixies were a much bigger deal broken up than they ever were together.
The pressure to reunite was inevitable. (It's completely anecdotal and unconfirmed, but a friend in the music business once told me that the individual members were contacted about the prospect of launching a reunion tour by being asked, "How would you like to make a million dollars this year?") In 2004, the group made it official, playing Coachella and other big festivals to much acclaim. The well-deserved victory lap allowed all those who had missed the boat the first time to get onboard. Ahead of the sonic curve in the late '80s, the Pixies were once again trendsetters in the new century, sparking a wave of alt-rock nostalgia that saw groups such as Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden and Pavement get back together for successful tours. Famous fans like Bono reportedly begged them to make another album, but Francis and the group remained cagey about returning to the studio.
Unfortunately, the Pixies finally obliged. Last fall, after years of focusing on just touring, the group started putting out four-song EPs, conveniently titled EP1, EP2 and EP3. The tracks are mostly competent stabs at the off-kilter college rock of their youth. "Bagboy" is a diverting shout-along rocker, while "Andro Queen" projects an air of dreamy romantic melancholy. (For old times' sake, Francis even switches languages, singing some of "Andro Queen" in Esperanto.) But the tracks, now compiled on Indie Cindy, are heartbreaking, and it's not because Deal dropped out of this reunion last summer and isn't on them. Fidelity to a band's original lineup doesn't matter to me. It's that the new songs can't contend with the band's romanticized former greatness. I say "romanticized" because, as strong as a lot of the Pixies' old music is, part of what makes it sing now is the idealized image we as a culture have attached to it.
And that's where the maddening ineffability of mystique comes in. Listen to either of the band's best-ofs, Wave of Mutilation or Death to the Pixies, and you'll hear a ton of dynamic tracks, full stop. But in the time since they were recorded, those songs have accrued enormous amounts of cultural cachet, becoming part of the legend of a band that "did things their own way" and never had a Nevermind or Ten moment where they were the biggest thing on the planet. The songs haven't changed, but our relationship to them and the band that made them has. Where once those songs were spiky, edgy left-of-center secrets—emboldened by the quartet's utter lack of pretense or expectations—now history has turned them into anthems, emblematic of an era and a musical movement.
Consequently, in 2014 the Pixies face nothing but expectations, forced to contend with the pent-up excitement and adulation that has surrounded the band since its breakup. Though the music on Indie Cindy is nowhere near as bad, it brings to mind the crushing disappointment that followed in the wake of the much-hyped Star Wars prequels or Conan O'Brien's depressingly unfunny TBS show. In all these cases, there was initially a sense of such possibility—of getting to revisit a beloved institution in a new guise—but then, the reality of having to live up to those possibilities proved impossible, creating a backlash of anger and disenchantment. Sure, our idols have earned the right to come back however and whenever they like, but we also have the right to regard them like Michael Jordan in a Wizards uniform.
Music fans will sometimes play a what-if game: What if the Beatles hadn't broken up? What if John Lennon hadn't been assassinated? What if Kurt Cobain hadn't killed himself? We like to spend time prognosticating a future in which our favorite artists are still writing and recording, still crafting music that we love. In our minds, we're able to make those imaginary albums perfect—just like we can oversimplify a departed artist's back catalog, seeing it as one flawless whole. In such an environment, the excitement that greeted the Pixies' reunion a decade ago was understandable: The imaginary ideal could for once magically enter the physical world. But those fond daydreams of what-if often crumble under the harsh light of reality. Next time you long for your favorite band to get back together, just remember: They could end up like the once mighty Pixies.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson
Photo courtesy of Christian Geisnaes