Pixies, Trompe le Monde – For years, this was the Pixies’ last official studio album. That changed in 2014, but it still marks the end of an era. It largely returns to the louder, noisier sound of the band’s earlier records, but also continues with the science fiction themes that were prevalent on Bossanova. There’s not a whole lot of Kim Deal’s vocals here, perhaps a sign of her imminent falling-out with Black Francis. The title literally means “fool the world,” and is apparently a phrase the band’s manager liked to use. It’s a play on trompe-l’oeil, or “fool the eye,” a kind of painting made to look real. The cover art runs with the “eye” idea by showing a lot of eyeballs, while the inside art is largely cartoonish drawings of spaceships.
Trompe le Monde – The short introductory song has some pretty mysterious lyrics. It starts out describing an imaginary T-shirt, then goes on to talk about a record. Does “it was named by some guy named Joe” suggest that Joey Santiago came up with the name? He was responsible for the band name, after all. What is the song from Washington State that the distorted part says is sampled? I suppose they’re just fooling the world.
Planet of Sound – You could say this is kind of a combination of earlier and later Pixies, in that it has an outer space theme, but loud, distorted music and vocals. It’s based on the idea of an alien receiving a transmission from Earth and searching for the source on one planet after another.
Alec Eiffel – This one is really fun and catchy. Lyrically, it’s about Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, the civil engineer and architect whose company designed and built the Eiffel Tower, also known for his groundbreaking work in aerodynamics. Frank seems to have an interest in such personages, as seen in his later song about William Mulholland. It’s true that there was a lot of objection to the tower before it was built, with artists and architects thinking it would be an eyesore. The tower was built on the Champ de Mons, called that because it was used for military drilling, but which fits in well with the songs on this album that reference the planet Mars. The video was filmed in a wind tunnel and shows physics formulas, reinforcing the theme of aerodynamics. Eiffel actually had a wind tunnel built at the foot of the tower and performed experiments there.
The Sad Punk – We’re back to the loud, distorted sound for this one, at least up until it becomes sentimental toward the end. It’s about the inevitably of extinction, and gives a kind of romantic tone to evolution.
Head On – A cover of a Jesus and Mary Chain song that was played on the radio quite often around when the Pixies were working on the album.
While the original had a slow, relaxed vocal, the Pixies’ version is fast and urgent, also omitting the extended ending. I understand that Jim and William Reid really liked the cover.
U-Mass – A negative tribute to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which Frank and Joey both attended. They apparently came up with the main riff while in school there, and Frank credits Joe Strummer with inspiration for the sound. It doesn’t really have that much to say, but it’s kind of fun.
Palace of the Brine – It’s about a dead lake inhabited by brine shrimp, also known as sea monkeys.
Letter to Memphis – A love song to Frank’s then-girlfriend (later wife and now ex-wife), presumably based on their inside joke that she was Cleopatra in a former life. Frank has said the song was inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” but is actually about Memphis in Egypt.
It was the capital of the nation for centuries, although I believe Cleopatra and the other Ptolemys ruled from Alexandria instead. You could say it’s based on the idea of love transcending time and space, and it’s really quite powerful and enjoyable.
Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons – While this has quiet verses leading up to a loud chorus in classic Pixies style, the vocals really aren’t that noisy even on the loud part. I suppose that kind of fits the dream theme, and I believe Frank has said the song is quite literally about what the title says, a bird dreaming about the Olympus Mons volcano on Mars. There’s some good sci-fi keyboard work by Eric Drew Feldman.
Space (I Believe In) – This has more of the feel of a jam session than most Pixies songs. I’m not saying that it necessarily was, just that it sounds like it. It’s rather meta-referential, about Eric Drew Feldman’s brother Jef, who played tablas on the song. Apparently the backwards-sounding title was a later development, with the song not having a name at first. Frank sings a little bit of the Perry Mason theme at one point.
Subbacultcha – An early Pixies song that didn’t make it to an album until…well, this one. It’s kind of a goth love song, praising a woman’s pale skin and black clothing, a theme Frank came back to pretty often. It’s kind of spoken more than sung, and I always found it kind of odd that Frank sees drug running on a Panamanian schooner as something romantic. Hey, to each their own. I also have to wonder what an erotic vulture would look like. I believe there was some discussion of this on the old Frank Black Forum.
Distance Equals Rate Times Time – On the demo version of “Subbacultcha,” there’s a line that was omitted from the album cut, which has basically the same sound as this song. I have to wonder if Frank just took that line and expanded it into a full (if short) number of its own. The lyrics are mostly just based on simple rhymes, although Frank has said it’s partially about how he loves watching television but finds a lot of it inane. The title doesn’t appear in the song, but it sort of does in “Space (I Believe In),” providing a bit of a link to that one as well. It’s pretty fun, and the sort of thing I can imagine a stadium crowd singing.
Lovely Day – Another pretty slow one that once again comes back to Mars, this time telling the story of someone moving to Mars and saving up so his lover can join him there. I like the line, “I remember your red dress, like a field full of poppy.” I’m not sure why using the singular instead of the plural works so well there, but it does.
Motorway to Roswell – I think this remains my favorite song on the album. It’s just so catchy, particularly that keyboard part; and has a sci-fi theme to boot. Obviously it references the supposed alien landing in Roswell in 1947, but I like that it’s largely from the alien’s point of view (kind of like “Planet of Sound” in that respect). He’s just a guy on vacation who ends up being captured through no fault of his own. My wife has never really gotten into the Pixies, but she’s told me she likes this one, particularly the way Frank says “shitty.”
The Navajo Know – Frank has said this closer is actually about Mohicans who work on construction sites, but he threw in “Navajo” because of the rhyme. I feel I should also mention that there are a lot of distorted voice samples on this album.