The classic line-up of Kim Deal’s cult band The Breeders have reunited for their first album together in 25 years. With her twin sister Kelley on second guitar and vocal, drummer Jim Macpherson and British bassist Josephine Wigg, expectations have been raised exceptionally high. In 1993 the band released Last Splash, an album that spawned their biggest hit ‘Cannonball’ and went on to sell a million copies in the States, while the band toured with Nirvana at the height of their powers, and garnered the lofty accolade of being raved about as one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands. There was no sharp acrimonious split, rather The Breeders struggled through the twin sister’s dual addictions, Kelley to heroin and Kim to alcohol, and failed to make another album during a couple of difficult years attempting to write and tour which ended in Kelley’s drug bust, rehab and splintering off. The Deal sisters would eventually make another couple of records under The Breeders monikor, but struggled to recapture the potency of their early years.
The Last Splash line-up finally reunited in 2012, in order to tour in celebration of that great album’s 20th anniversary, and found, no doubt aided by the Deal sister’s decade of sobriety, that things were much easier and more fun this time round. So much so that nobody wanted it to end. It’s taken six years to write and record All Nerve, suggesting the group haven’t been labouring under a great deal of outside pressure. The results are interesting, and largely successful, but it’s a deeper, darker sounding group than before, eschewing that chaotic spring-in-the-step that made tracks like alternative rock anthem ‘Cannonball’ so compelling. This isn’t the sound of a band trying to cash-in on former glories and missing the mark, though, it’s a band progressing and expressing themselves in a way that, while preserving the rawness of their sound, reaches for more lofty emotional heights.
In 2018 it’s refreshing to hear a band releasing such a high-profile, hype-garnering record that doesn’t dip into our modern digital toolbox of musical fixers and polishers. Steve Albini’s name in the credits should be a clue, but it’s evident that throughout her long career within the cultier side of American rock, Kim Deal has been a proponent, the recording studio equivalent of The Amish faith. No computers, no auto-tune, no digital effects, what you hear is the band playing, warts and all. If you’ve been immersing yourself in high-sheen, heavily processed pop you will probably need to give this album a few listens and reset your ears. Once you have you’ll be rewarded, for The Breeder’s comeback is full of moments of spare beauty, moody contemplation, and dark, grimey grooves.
The album begins with the assured ‘Nervous Mary’, building confidently from a sparse, spooky intro, to a dogged tension filled pace, which sounds forever on the edge of exploding, whilst capitalising upon the sister’s twin vocals, over-lapping. ‘Wait in the Car’ follows, relieving some of that tension, and pulling out some hooks which sound vital and vaguely familiar. It was an unsurprising choice of lead single, harking back to the earliest iteration of The Breeders from their debut Pod, in many ways. Title track, ‘All Nerve’ is a very 90s-sounding quiet verse/loud chorus ballad, but it lands more effectively than it perhaps deserves to. ‘MetaGoth’ puts Wiggs’ vocal in the spotlight, showcasing her icy English accent which matches the suitably gothy sound perfectly.
A particular highlight for me is the Velvet Underground-esque ‘Walking With A Killer’, which was originally released in 2012 as a Kim Deal solo single. This version makes the older one sound like the demo, though, it is luscious and very affecting, influenced by Deal’s experiences walking home near a military base, manned by misogynist “assholes”, this song manages to be both beautiful and unnerving. All Nerve is a strong entry into The Breeder’s back catalogue, it doesn’t have the same elastic energy of their earliest releases, but you’d be mad to expect that now. Instead it has its most success reaching for more poignant catharses, or brooding darkly through moody grooves with a backbone. It’s a grower not a shower, but certainly not the disappointment I’ve heard some decry.