Review Summary: Doolittle is a great album that's rightfully acclaimed as one of alternative rock's best, but its inconsistency in songwriting and creative ideas makes it a bit too jarring.
It's obviously a great album; any album containing "Debaser", "Monkey Gone to Heaven", "Here Comes Your Man", "Wave of Mutilation" or "Gouge Away" is worth your time. Even though Steve Albini was no longer producing their albums, they still sounded fresh and sharp, most notably is the bass on this album compared to their rawer and louder debut. The rolling lines opening the album up on "Debaser", for example, sound amazing here whereas Surfer Rosa was a rawer, more unfiltered array of sound. And Doolittle is also focused more on individual songs than that barrage of sound. It's hardly what you would consider "mainstream", despite how popular it has been for the past three decades, but many of these songs listed above are bona-fide indie pop that rightfully got wide-reaching radio play. Lyrically, it's a bit different, but don't look to Pixies for lyrical depth; they're never-revealing and more focused on provoking a reaction than anything, but they're best looked at when they're individual lines or hooks (which Surfer Rosa excelled at).
But the ugly truth about Doolittle: it would be better as an EP than a full album. Why? It's brutally inconsistent, and it's the saddest thing. First, let's look at the best moments:
⚫ the surf rock vibe of "Debaser", only to turn into a manic song slightly more intact than the similar "Cactus", from their debut. Oh, and "Slicing Up Eyeballs" is an enormous line
⚫ the strings on "Monkey Gone to Heaven", transform a garage rock-influenced song into a unique alternative staple, and it's one of the earliest songs against climate change?
⚫ "Gouge Away" is constantly tense, consistently overlooked, but always enjoyable; it's one of the album's most direct and primitive songs, undoubtedly better if Albini produced it, but awesome nevertheless, mainly because its chorus and central riff rip music to shreds
⚫"Dead" distorts the guitar into territory only reached by Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca, while the muffled vocals are a great idea
⚫ "Tame" is full of one-liners that kind of make sense, but its chorus is brutally simple, and it works
⚫ "Wave of Mutilation" transitions incredibly well from "Debaser", but holds its ground quite well with punk-like simplicity and incredible vocals, clear but intense as ever
⚫ "Here Comes Your Man" doesn't need much explaining; it's far more aligned with The Beach Boys, and it's one of the band's most beautiful and lush moments that represents those long, hot college summers
⚫ "Hey" is a bit overlooked, not unusual for the B-side, but it stands miles ahead of the rest (besides "Gouge..."); it's a slow and dense song with special and intricate guitar work, while the cleaner production highlights the rhythm more than Albini would have liked, and the vocals are amusing too
These 8 cuts would've been great for an EP. It would be a little longer than their debut EP, Come on Pilgrim, but much more refined and consistent. As for the rest of Doolittle? Mostly bland, some good but not as polished or interesting as they could have been. Going deeper into the album's consistency problem is that this album seems too formulaic for its own good. Okay, "Silver" is a clear exception to this principle, but let's not pretend that it's anything special (although interesting to say the least). Doolittle's songs almost always use very similar structures with very similar bass lines and similar guitar riffs, which isn't that unusual for a band taking influence from punk and surf rock, but there aren't many exceptions outside of the songs already discussed where the band could shine and distinguish themselves. The special moments of brilliance (or just goofiness, as I'd argue that nothing Pixies did was that carefully planned out and more just a result of charisma) listed in the above songs helped distinguish these songs from each other. But there are a lot of cases where they don't have these special moments and the band's limited songwriting appears to be an issue.
Look at "Crackity Jones" or "Mr. Grieves": they try to do what they did with Surfer Rosa, a short and manic burst of nonsensical energy, but this time it's not nearly as exciting or relentless as before. Yet, what did they do to evolve their sound besides polish it up more? "No 13 Baby" is the album's longest song, but it doesn't deserve to be; the writing isn't lazy, but it's generally not that interesting and a bit jarring. "There Goes My Gun" isn't unique nor memorable, and it's not even just that it's too short to be developed, it's that it doesn't have much of an interesting concept to it to give it a charm. "Silver" is ambitious, but not that good; the worst part is that it stops the album's momentum, but it's not interesting enough to warrant a run time of over 2 minutes, nor does it go anywhere with its ambitions. "I Bleed" starts off with a slow, surf-esque bass line, followed by a lo-fi guitar ringing around it. Wow, how did they ever think of this? It tries to combine the vibe of "Here Comes Your Man" with the propulsive screams on "Tame", or even "Dead", but instead just sounds bland. It's not too long for what it tries to do, and it's hardly bad, just... we've already heard these ideas before. A last note on individual songs: "La La Love You" is good, great even, and even when I first listened to this album and was turned off by much of it, this song interested me. Yes, it hurts the momentum despite its not-slow tempo, but it's a bright and upbeat love song that's simple, and maybe it's poorly-written, but it's reminiscent of those innocent, sunny college afternoons where worrying about your crush trumps your papers the next day.
It's hard to call Doolittle a genuine sophomore slump, because the band did improve in some ways with more specialization over songs than a barrage of playful noise, and bringing in the cellos was a great idea, and this production goes very well with the more relaxed, less noisy focus. But Surfer Rosa had consistency, and its rawness engineered by Albini brought out the best in the band. It felt more natural, interesting, and fan. Doolittle is definitely a great album that I've played many times, but it's too inconsistent for its own good and would be better condensed into an EP.