All Nerve – The Breeders – A Whiplash Masterpiece

To preface: I was there. I was twenty years old in 1993. If you weren’t, please Nevermind the narrow story you’ve gleaned about the 1990s, one no worse or better than the one I heard about music at the time of my birth, but one that is just a charcoal sketch, despite the lies we are told that everything you need to know is knowable and downloadable, in seconds, and for free.

As successive bands who came of age in the early 1990s after paying their dues in the 1980s have returned (against all commercial odds but in response to a yawning musical vacuum) it presents a beautiful, but difficult, challenge. The writers who were there and still care enough to bridge the knowledge gap with the lack of archived 1990s media, try to play catch up. We writers and fans now (again) live in the moment; try to quantify our most shimmery, most precious memories of life; quiet our fist-waving frustrations about what should have been; and yet, try to be cool. We have no chill. Not with The Breeders new album, All Nerve, on repeat, as we are actually LIVING. We are celebrating. Our youth, our celebration was always thus: loud, passionate, know-it-all, savvy and naturally beautiful. We aren’t old. We are just different from those immediately before and after us. We were kids who grew and thrived in a world at the end of the century, spitting distance from Woodstock nostalgia, which deserved all the ridicule in the world as the hypocrisy it was, stacked right next to the glaring wound of the Manson era that “ended the Sixties”, concurrently (those murders weeks before Woodstock, in fact). We grew up in post-hippiedom, bloody anger and a future in question (since we’d missed “utopia”), and learned about promise and glory, and the violent ends, of the better days we had missed, all in one breath. Our parents were either hippie-yuppie profiteers or bitter failures of same. Enter post-punk and everything after. Enter me, him, and everyone we know. The Breeders are one of the mighty bands who straddled this chasm and knew how to kick its teeth in. Yet, unsung they were. But The Pixies were filled with a heaping scoop of Kim Deal, to place this in the context that is more shorthand, for a moment.

Despite what we were told to expect, and what has been reduced by reductive wiki-history to one or two bands in strange cities (as if LIFE was an e coli outbreak instead of musical history, which is what today’s music gatekeepers want you to think) the late 80s and early 90s was a time of rich musical diversity, all of it pure rock and roll in its most evolved forms. Bands led by women (or even all women) and people of colour reached some parity with the same old boys club, not even in separate categories anymore. Lollapalooza had started in North America, a phenom whose effect cannot be overstated, curated as it was for years by visionaries, not businessmen (who found that visionary ideas were even profitable) and with it, a greater demand and platform for diversity and breadth of line-ups. Lolla was our Woodstock, without the hype or recognition, and for a longer period. It was sincere, it was loud, and it was the same type of grass-roots movement we’d all heard was dead and gone and OD’d before our time. Kids everywhere picked up guitars and started bands in their garages again. If you could write, and hustle, you might even get a (multi-album) record deal. Music videos were a platform and key aspect of television, 24 hours a day, in stereo. We saw ourselves on MTV, on MuchMusic, no longer alone in nowhere towns, but a generation. A tribe. It was a little hippie-ish, in hindsight, without the cults. It was certainly optimistic; we were young and so thought time, life, progress & music moved only forward, creativity a force that was unstoppable and beloved by all, profitable too, so safe. Assured. We were evolving as a species, ready to shake off Cold War fear and enter the future we were promised would be shiny and cool.

We’ve written many times about the dark turn of music via technology and hubris of an industry that was never for the artists or the fans at all. So we only say, here and now in celebration mode of The Breeders hitting our own damn city tomorrow: fuck all that shit, fuck it. We got fucked over, but we Goonies & punks never die. We’re still alive. Most of us. And that which fails to kill us makes us stronger than steel.

But here, what of nerve/s, the Acropolis, and mom? What of the lede buried under excitement and nerves of a writer with a lump in her throat and tears that spring forth even after fifty spins, happy-sad tears of another time, another me, shaking awake these last few years and now shuddering & breathing into my full height again? What of this new music that peels back the layers we accumulate to survive, as if it were the music of back then?

The album is the globally lauded All Nerve, a perfect title for an epic, instant hit, packed into just 33 minutes. Economy is the trait of the most gifted artists; (not the fangirl I am only when I must be) the right word, the right number of notes, and knowing when to quit. To be sure, it’s never enough, the disk is flipped and restarted; the habit of the true music fan. A habit that is back. IT’S BACK!

The songs are incredibly different across the record: complete thoughts, tidy morsels, yet always pure Breeders (back with their most successful line up). The production is clean and straightforward, live-sounding. It sounds like it did before, but also new, because music like this was so far ahead of its time and was always underrated & underground. Whether fans of The Pixies, The Breeders, or other noteworthy sounds of the time they gained prominence, or even fans who may be new to this band, there is something, a lot, here for you. My true people who live to clutch lyrics to their chest, to carve imaginary tattoos or real ones, there is a treasure chest here, for you, too. The words haunt, drift like smoke, and now and then growl for your attention. They even meow, in an unaffected way, that’s how fucking great Kim Deal is as a singer.

“Wait in the Car” looks at the never-ending pull of memory and regret “as a sinner I unlock nothin’ but need”, a verse cryptic and plain by turns, like the best words, flexible, transmutable, even oceanic. Is mother “mother”? Or a metaphor. “Wait in the car! I got business!” It works both ways, myriad ways. “Walking with a Killer” is a delightfully chilly entry to a subject matter that belongs keenly to alternative music and end of the century girls who are only here because we all survived something. Many things. We are mindful. We must be. We were not always careful and were very often lucky. We tumbled out of wherever at a time when hitchhiking was normal and usually safe; when kids played, untethered, until street lights came on, or glided through dark streets in the illusion of safety and the wind we generated on our five-speeds. It was before now, when TV dead girls pile up like Lego, like it’s nothing, people almost unshockable after 20 years of true crime. Of true crimes that went on around us and slithered by us for no real reason. Music today has to shock them awake from TV’s spell, same as it ever was. Nothing could be more eerie than “the cornfields of East 35”. It’s plain. But we all know, too, the killers that lie within each of us, the plagues too many have been lost to, the ways we could die. It’s stark, and important. Take it both ways, just to be safe. Take it deep.

Some of the most towering lyrical statements can simply not be separated from the music, such as “Dawn, Making an Effort” which is indescribable. I will say only “Get it together. Rally. Rally.” will hit you where you live.

The album closer, “Blues at the Acropolis” is, like the rest of the album, stunningly spare but to close listeners, is an applause-worthy artistic statement, one in which Deal lets herself off the chain of self-restraint and splashes out a little. This lyrical Acropolis is a fitting epic, full of vicious men, stoned junkies, memories of heroes who “once bled out”, and one Capital sister. It, like all fine art, will not be pinned down to place, time, tense, metaphor, shade, anger, love, pity, success, or even happiness. “I got the blues at the Acropolis. I’ve got the blues at the Acropolis” (…I’ll get the blues). The blues, is maybe, assured, permanent, hardwired, s’ok, we now know how many of us fight and live with that reality, one of us driving, one of us riding, for the rest of our days. But we are here: climbing the steps, learning from those around us, living and dead, icons and monuments and idiots and bastards, boys and the limits of what we can learn from them – which is something women are finally saying out loud, thanks to women like Kim and Kelley Deal who carved this path, beginning in another century. What we learn from ourselves, from our sisters, if we can find them.

Each time an enormous band comes back to tour or release new music, another light goes on in the atmosphere; a clearing of cobwebs in the heads of both older and younger music fans. We simply don’t care how many years it has been, except to say, isn’t it great we are all still here, that you are back. That you can do all that. This magazine emerged at the same time of this recent shift (2015), and we’ve been witnesses to a revolution that’s been brewing and continues to rumble forward. But few announcements or releases have managed to shake the matrix to its core the way The Breeders’ new record has. We doubt few crowds we’ve seen will be as enraptured as that for the current tour will be. It’s the one we’ve waited for.


Jacqueline Howell

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