- by Warwick Stubbs Rating:10 Release Date:1991-09-21 Label: 4AD
Between this album and the first, the Pixies defining Surfer Rosa lay two albums which had already out-grown the incestuous tales of redneck American life in the backwoods. The Pixies had grown with Doolittle, and expanded with Bossanova; now with Trompe le Monde, Pixies fully embraced Bossanova’s expansion and the further musings of singer and songwriter Black Francis. In a review for All Music, Heather Phares called Trompe le Monde “essentially Black Francis’ solo debut.” This is something I agree with and have generally always felt.
One only needs to look at the subject matter on the Frank Black debut and the follow-up Teenager of the Year to find similar offerings: ‘Alec Eiffel’ is a song that references the French engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, ‘Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons’, ‘Space (I Believe In)’, ‘Distance Equals Rate Times Time’, and ‘Motorway to Roswell’ can all be found in their equivalently similar science-fictional offerings in Frank Black’s solo efforts.
Having said that, Trompe le Monde is still an outstanding quintessentially Pixies album. David Lovering’s drums power through the hard rockers while still keeping tempos sprightly when more subtlety is asked for, Joey Santiago's lead guitar adds all the quirkiness and noise fans have come to expect, Francis’ vocals shriek and scream, and are sometimes hushed with melody. Perhaps most tellingly is the often sighted reduced role of Kim Deal. While Deal was never a main songwriter, only having two co-writing credits, her backing vocals contrasting with the sometimes higher falsetto of Francis are such a defining aspect of Pixies early work that they seem almost entirely missing on this album. For most of the album, there are no stand out vocal parts by Deal, only the occasional backing – a mere three or four songs in total. Listening to older songs like ‘Where Is My Mind’, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, and ‘Dig For Fire’ really makes the listener miss the addition of those vocals, but what is also noticeable is the fact that Deal’s bass is even less present. Rather than lots of space between guitar parts allowing the bass to stand out, this album brings in bigger guitars swamping much of the bass.
Still, all four members are present, and songs are just as catchy, raucous and narrative as ever – Deal’s bass does thump out in the intro to ‘Letter to Memphis’ as the guitars sigh and woo over top.
Trompe le Monde pays greater tribute to the melodies of The Cars, The Beatles, or even Brian Wilson rather than the punk influences of early. Punk is still here in the songs ‘U-Mass’ and ‘The Sad Punk’ but much of that has been relegated to the back-seat to allow Francis more scope in his songwriting. Gone is the overt soft/loud dynamic of ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ that Nirvana would later popularise, opting more for full blasts of rock straight off the bat and less exaggerated screeching.
While being the less critically acclaimed Pixies album, I know the lovers are out there despite the fact that many of us either grew our love for the band through Surfer Rosa or found the upbeat surf-pop of Doolittle more inviting; in contrast Trompe le Monde is much darker while still maintaining humour – it’s like a Philip K. Dick novel in all its weirdness and humanity. But it has its charm, less biblically incestuous, more science-fictional, less indie rock and more straight forward alternative rock, it has more in common with Bossanova than anything previous, and while that makes sense, since it follows directly on, it also lacks the charm and appeal of the first two albums – that being youthful abrasiveness being replaced with a sturdier, cleaner studio sound (far from Albini’s open-air no thrills engineering). Tales and musings of space and science dominate, and despite the album cover hinting at the eyeball fetish of ‘Debaser’s’ surrealist film referencing, it exudes an alienesque presence instead.
“Sun shines in the rusty morning / Skyline of the Olympus Mons / I think about it sometimes” Francis sings before confessing “Into the mountain, I will fall” His dreams of flying over the romanticised canals of Mars are ours to listen to. And the penultimate song ‘Motorway to Roswell’ builds from a gentle beginning telling of a holiday jaunt that ended the crashed visitor in army crates and “photographs in files”, building to a desperate climax of “Last night he could not make it, he tried hard but he could not make it” before fading with the twinkling of stars as morning arches over the horizon. The song is an almost-bookend that rounds off what began with 'Planet of Sound' where the narrator searches planet to planet looking for music only to discover that "This ain't the planet of sound", here near the end, the traveller crashes discovering the planet of abducted alien visitors and conspiracy theories instead.
Even with the addition of reformation albums, Trompe le Monde stands as the final part of a magnificent one EP, four-album legacy and should never be considered a lesser album; sure it lacks hits, but think about this: Trompe le Monde was released in the latter half of 1991 – the day before Nevermind! And in a year that saw many defining moments in music from Metallica and Guns ‘N’ Roses (the excessive Use Your Illusion albums and videos) to N.W.A. and Cypress Hill, and all the way over to Amy Grant and Garth Brooks(!), Trompe le Monde didn’t stand much of a chance. Mainstream music was exploding: hair metal was dying, heavy metal was re-invigorated, pop, country, and hip hop were all hitting the charts just moments before grunge exploded good and true. And meanwhile, relationships in Pixies were breaking down, and the band ended their stint on an album just as confident and – perhaps more – interesting as any of the previous albums.