Photo courtesy of 4AD

On March 2, the alternative rock band The Breeders released “All Nerve,” their fifth studio album. The group, which is best known for its 1993 hit song “Cannonball,” has been around since 1989 in various forms with its only consistent member being the band’s founder and lead
vocalist Kim Deal.

The group has existed largely on the periphery of the popular alternative rock scene, achieving little commercial success but consistently receiving positive critical reviews. Each of the group’s many different members over the years has treated The Breeders as a sort of an artistic side project, a supplement to their work in their primary bands.

Throughout much of the group’s 29-year history, Deal has additionally been the bassist in the more commercially successful band The Pixies. In 2013 Deal left The Pixies, allowing her to focus on The Breeders and her solo work. Around the same time, the members who were in the group in 1993 for the release of band’s most successful album “Last Splash” got back together to form The Breeders’ most capable lineup in two decades.

“All Nerve” is the first new music The Breeders have released since then, and Deal’s freedom to focus on the album without the distraction of working for The Pixies and the reunion of the “Last Splash” lineup shows through in the quality of the music.

Like all of The Breeders’ music, “All Nerve” washes over the listener in an undulating cascade of sonic immersion. Deal famously espouses a stripped-down analog production style she calls “all wave” which favors raw instrumentation and analog effects over computerized autotuning and instrumental effects. While Deal does not stay completely faithful to the “all wave” incorporating greater levels of production in the new recordings than she did on her older work, the album has a feeling of old-school grittiness which is tough to find in music these days.

With a runtime of only 33 minutes, the album manages to be driving and impactful for the listener without going on too long. The opening track, “Nervous Mary,” features the extensive analog vocal and guitar distortion that marked The Breeders’ early music. This fun, building song is both catchy and unapologetically dark, a relic of the early days of punk-inspired alternative music.

The album’s titular song mixes a fast, pop-punk style bass line, periodic explosions of raw electric guitar and slow, sedate lyrics. The result is a unique juxtaposition of slow and quiet with fast and loud that is musically complex and varied in a discontinuous way.

“MetaGoth” features appropriately dark errant distorted guitar chords over a driving guitar riff and excessively sinister vocals. The result is a tongue-in-cheek ultra-gothic tune that is both fun to listen to and humorous.

Most of the album is fresh and pleasant, even if the constituent sounds do not qualify as ear-pleasing. Still, the album gets somewhat repetitive towards the end, and the last tracks could benefit from greater sound variation.

The strongest track on the album is “Walking with a Killer,” a slow and cool song with a relaxing rhythm that provides a pleasant break at the middle of the album from the intensity of the music surrounding it. The song has the power to lull its listener almost to sleep, yet if he breaks the spell to truly pay attention to the lyrics, the song turns out to be a dark tale of doom and helplessness.

The song is about its narrator literally walking with a killer. As she begins to realize that she can do nothing to avoid death, the listener’s calmness rapidly turns into a horrified sense of resignation to the narrator’s fate. The track is deeply dark and affecting.

In this sense, “Walking with a Killer” embodies perfectly the traits that define the album as a whole. It is musically beautiful in the uniquely dark, rough way in which post-punk alternative music exhibits beauty.

Much like all of The Breeders’ music, “All Nerve” is paradoxically harsh and yet alluring. The album is not likely to produce any top 40 hits, and many of its songs might benefit from further polishing. Still, as a whole it is refreshingly complex, powerful and artistically uncompromising, everything one would want from a Breeders album.