The Breeders are back, same as they were, but shoving their way into new territory.
“Good morning!” shouts Kim Deal on single “Wait in the Car” from the Breeders’ first album in a decade, All Nerve. That exclamation welcomes us back to the band with a fresh alarm that manages to look back past those 10 years all the way to the early 1990s, not just because the group resumes that era’s alt-rock sounds, but because the same members that created Last Splash are back together. The album reunites the group, but doesn’t dwell in the past. The Breeders mix a variety of styles into this disc while still sounding utterly like the Breeders, a feat that’s as surprising as it is welcome.
“Wait in the Car” doesn’t open the album. Instead we get “Nervous Mary,” with its fidgety open and its dark lyrics. “She runs for the exit but she never got away,” sounds both frightening and critical. The shadows creep in and everything becomes as anxious as poor Mary. That “Good morning!” coupled with an anthemic guitar hook briefly breaks the mood, until we find our new character to be trapped in doing the wrong thing (like meowing instead of speaking at its goofiest), but resisting the clampdown and trying to escape external and internal pressures.
That song’s desire to “map the stars” returns a few tracks later in the open-sounding “Spacewoman,” an empathetic answer to “Space Oddity” and its kind. Deal looks up toward the spacewoman and finds a connection in their mutual loneliness. The song includes moments of grungy guitar, but Deal’s higher singing over restrained music amplifies not only the isolation but the outward gaze into cold blackness. Form doesn’t need to match content, but the fitting of this vocal delivery with spacey transmissions nearly creates a visual to go with the lyrical concerns in one of the album’s most conceptual moments.
Thinking in terms of artfulness might lead to missing the album’s potency, presented in the craft of carefully constructed rock. The Breeders don’t stray far from their roots, but no track here feels redundant. A sort of aggressive strength runs through the album, but the occasionally inscrutable lyrics lead to entertaining complexity, whether in the danger of an almost-lilt in “All Nerve” or the pop-rock metaphysics of “Archangel’s Thunderbird.”
By the time the album closes with the mid-tempo classic rock dirge of “Blues at the Acropolis,” the band has properly mined the nuances of its broadly considered sound. When Deal sings, “Drunks take a piss where heroes once bled out,” it’s hard to tell if that’s a victory, a defeat or simply a cynical observation. The past remains in consideration, but not as something to be enshrined. The Breeders are back, same as they were, but shoving their way into new territory.