Splash After Death: The Breeders' Reunion Actually Means Something
Nostalgia is an increasingly strange commodity even as it proves to be a well that remarkably never runs dry. For every one person to throw up their hands and stop participating (undoubtedly saying something like “I’m over it!”), another reaches the proper maturation point where they begin to experience it at its peak, the plus-minus effect resulting in a market that exists in perpetual stasis, never shrinking. The music industry has been keen to exploit this, and there is a romance in believing that the power players knew the climate was right by reading the tea leaves and realizing that music fanatics are uniquely susceptible to nostalgia in ways that are perhaps not as acute or salable in other realms of fandom. The reality is more likely that they were as surprised by this outcome as the rest of us and only figured it out by using the real-time market research of concert receipts, album reissue sales, and streaming playlists.
This might primarily be, as it normally would be, a function of a generation that is growing into late adulthood and commandeering certain aspects of pop culture in an effort to rekindle their glory days. The strength of the phenomenon over the past ten years or so might have something to do with the fact that all art and knowledge is at our fingertips and in our phones, instantly available in ways that it never was before the internet. It might have something to do with the possibility that the 1990’s was the last calendar decade that had a definitive and homogenized musical mainstream (a contentious assertion, but there is an argument to be made). The details of how nostalgia works and why it’s taken root so strongly can be debated endlessly and aren’t really important here – to proceed, we only need acknowledge that it is, in fact, a thing.
The crown jewel of the nostalgia economy is the band reunion. There is nothing that more thoroughly inflames our love for the past as when a band comes back from the dead. At The Drive-In came back with the disaster-prone original line-up intact (and the hardcore kids rejoiced!) for a short time in 2016 before cutting ties with Jim Ward in a way that seemed final. Pavement reunited for a victory lap tour in 2010 (and all the indie kids rejoiced!) and no one seemed to give any weight to Stephen Malkmus’ melodramatically performative final statement from 1999. LCD Soundsystem called it quits in 2011 only to call it un-quits in 2017 (and all the electroclash kids were wryly bemused!), replete with an acclaimed new album, a tour, and several novel ways to be jaded about social norms, including some that James Murphy himself had helped to evangelize from his bully pulpit in the New York Renaissance scene of the early aughts.
In a way, the Breeders were formed out of an entropic dissolution. The Pixies, for whom Kim Deal had played bass and provided sweetly grounded backing vocals, had skyrocketed to a sort of fame in other parts of the world but largely hadn’t found a firm footing in the U.S. mainstream while they were together – they would go on, post-breakup, to become the legendary band that no one knew but cool people seemed to know about, discovered on mysterious bootlegs, heard soundtracking memorable movie scenes, and passed down from older sibling to younger in the bedrooms of suburban America. As that ship was only beginning to run itself aground, Kim Deal recruited Josephine Wiggs to play bass on the Breeders’ first LP, Pod. Within a couple of years, Kim’s twin sister Kelley had come on board and Jim MacPherson was brought on as the permanent drummer. That line-up went on to become the definitive version of the band upon the release of 1993's Last Splash, which was an iconic album of the time that not many people saw coming beforehand, spearheaded by the chart-busting single “Cannonball”: a template for a breezy new “California” sound in alternative rock, a sound we didn’t know we needed but, once heard, seemed to have had been missing all along.
Before they could properly follow up their breakthrough, the band fell victim to external factors and issues beyond their control. Kelley Deal’s substance abuse hang-ups sidelined her in 1995 and the band members went on to other projects, doing some work together but mostly separate from each other. For the next decade-plus the Breeders would fade in and out of existence with a revolving-door cast in which Kim was the only constant, releasing three more albums that were all good even if they were missing noticeable amounts of both the science and the magic that had made Last Splash so brilliant.
Cut to 2012: the Last Splash line-up reunites for 20-year anniversary shows. This is familiar territory. As discussed above, this is the type of activity that has become expected in today’s climate: relatively successful band reunites after a significant amount of time and completes a tour where they revisit their most well-known work, and along the way they are mythologized by the people who knew them when, resulting in sold-out shows and whisperings of a possible future beyond the tour. One could quite easily construct a very reusable rock-magazine boilerplate by just leaving blanks for proper nouns and dates. And this all begins to feel like there's something cynical embedded deep beneath, like the motives may have more to do with profit than passion. Expectedly, these reunions hardly ever seem to mean anything outside of the surface-level nicemaking between people who have progressed from being artistically estranged to being personally so - look no further than the Smashing Pumpkins' upcoming reunion tour for evidence of an audience beginning to backlash against the whole concept.
What is less perfunctory about the Breeders in this situation is that the definitive version of the band has now released their first new LP in 25 years, All Nerve. The album uses the the crunchy medium-fidelity sonics of the recent-ish Title TK/Mountain Battles era as the bedrock and injects it with Jim MacPherson’s indelible timekeeping (those cymbals!!) and the triumphant return of Josephine Wiggs’ rolling thunder basslines. It is truly the evolution that one would expect in that it respects the band’s tradition while allowing for the artistic growth that each individual member has undergone in the intervening time – growth made all the more special by the fact that it largely occurred outside the context of the band. And it doesn’t hurt that the Deal sisters are back with their eerily beautiful harmonies and free-associative lyrical style.
Of all the reunions that the public has been subjected to, this is one that really matters because it represents both an artistic step forward and the revisiting of a band who was seminal for their time (just ask Beth Cosentino, or the members of Autolux, or any of the West Coast bands that have proliferated in the Breeders’ wake). It is one that really matters because of the politics of the moment: even though the Breeders didn’t do anything explicitly to bring about the current state of feminist activism (or activist feminism), the shift of the spotlight onto bands fronted by female musicians remains an important part of our culture’s necessary and ongoing trend toward inclusion. It is one that really matters because the band is comprised of professionals who came together in the aftermath of a wreckage, and their mere existence proves an enduring counterpoint to the Pixies’ haphazardly polarizing antics since their own re-forming. It is one that really matters because the sound the Breeders defined has often been imitated, but it has never been captured – it’s taken a lot of years to once again bottle this particular brand of lightning.
Tagging extracurricular meaning onto things like this can be dangerous, oftentimes it turns out to be wholly inaccurate and even tone-deaf. The band themselves might say that there isn’t really a significance beyond the fact that the members missed playing together, wanted to make some new music, and their schedules allowed for the possibility. The argument being presented here is that the meaning superimposes itself onto the activity after the fact. Even if the band in question doesn’t approach the proceedings with the intention of making a statement, the statement can be seen in the actuality of the happening, independent of intention or lack thereof.
“Getting the band back together” is an old trope that is becoming more and more common (and profitable) by the year. As the routine firmly establishes itself through repetition it becomes all the easier for the industry to continue to capitalize on the booming population of fans constantly reaching backward to reignite the old flames they felt as teenagers. There is nothing wrong with this, business is business (if you’ll allow a tautological indulgence). But it is undeniably refreshing to see a group reconstitute itself after so long and deliver work that has the full force and potency of their previous best. It remains a rare instance in the Age of Internet-lightenment, even as artists are able to maintain relevancy further into their careers as a rule.
Writing, recording, and performing can demand a lot from people in their twenties; this can be doubly true when the people are arriving at the plateau of middle age. It takes a creative vigor that many people simply wouldn’t be able to keep up. It takes a commitment to the idea of the band as a collaborative unit to pull off such a reimagining, and it takes a vision that has been tweaked over the years but has never wavered. But most of all, it takes a whole lot of nerve.