Despite being critically lauded, Trompe le Monde was for years the least beloved Pixes album among fans, failing to elicit the level of sacred reverence of Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, or even Bossanova. Some fans criticized the album for being too radio-friendly, sounding too much like a Frank Black solo effort, and not featuring enough Kim Deal. For a while, it was notable for being the “last Pixies album,” but ever since Black reunited with Joey Santiago and David Lovering, but not Deal, resulting in 2014’s critically panned Indie Cindy, Trompe le Monde lacks even that distinction.
It’s not that Trompe le Monde’s detractors are entirely unwarranted in their reservations. When compared to the off-the-wall impishness of the band’s earlier work, the album sounds almost distressingly normal at first, given its traditional pop-song structures and clear, well-produced arrangements. Meanwhile, any hints of irreverent Surfer Rosa-style song fragments and deliberate dissonance are virtually absent, as are Deal’s previously prominent backing vocals. These are the key elements that to some degree defined the Pixies’s sound during their rise to alt-rock-legend status, so it’s understandable that an album mostly devoid of said elements caused some consternation circa 1991.
Looking back from a time in which Surfer Rosa’s “Gigantic” has appeared in a ubiquitous iPhone ad campaign, lodging such complaints against what has turned out to be the lowest-selling Pixies album of the original four now seems quaint. We’re a quarter of a century removed from a time when a band like the Pixies representing the underground might have actually meant something to some disaffected youth out there, when getting a song on the radio—or at least vaguely seeming to try to—was tantamount to “selling out.” Now freed from that context, Trompe le Monde can be evaluated on its own purely musical merits.
As endearing as the band’s earlier work was, the Pixies’s legacy isn’t really predicated on “Crackity Jones” or “Broken Face.” Instead, we’re more apt to remember “Here Comes Your Man,” “Debaser,” “River Euphrates,” and all the other indie-rock classics the erstwhile Black Francis wrote. In that sense, Trompe le Monde represents the Pixies getting right to the meat: 15 fully realized rock tracks and no toss-offs that serve more as signifiers of weirdness than serious songwriting efforts. Can anyone actually imagine “Alec Eiffel,” with its jumble of off-kilter guitar riffs and freaky pitch-shifted vocals, actually being played on commercial radio? What about “The Sad Punk,” which is half punky headbanger, half creamy slow burner?
As for Deal, it would be an enormous stretch to claim that a mere two songwriting contributions on the three previous Pixies albums and the occasional distinctive backup vocal were what made the band’s pre-Trompe le Monde work great. Indeed, Black’s songs here lose little to no impact with Deal playing a less audible role. Several tracks, especially “Motorway to Roswell” and the rapturous lead single “Letter to Memphis,” are masterful pop songs that are relentless in their melodic assault. This is especially evident in album’s middle stretch, starting with the simultaneously abrasive and hugely hooky Jesus and the Mary Chain cover “Head On” and continuing through the resplendent “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons,” which flows so seamlessly that it becomes useless trying to discern where one hook ends and the next begins.
Trompe le Monde isn’t only the most melodic Pixies album, it’s the hardest-rocking. Sure, the production, courtesy of Gil Norton (who also produced Doolittle and Bossanova), is cleaner than that of Surfer Rosa, but as a result, the guitars are meatier, the drums louder and crisper. The pummeling “Planet of Sound,” with its breakneck tempo and walloping riff, may very well be the hardest, most satisfyingly pure rock song the Pixies ever laid down—“Debaser” included.
Trompe le Monde’s near-perfect balance of melodicism and high-octane rock power is perhaps exemplified best by “U Mass.” Combining a sturdy meat-and-potatoes guitar riff, famously composed while Black and Santiago were attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst, with a characteristically sarcastic yet sing-along refrain of “It’s educational!,” not to mention a critical secret ingredient in the form of a cowbell, “U Mass” deserves a place in the annals of all-time great frat-rock anthems. But like the rest of Trompe le Monde, it gets overlooked because of the cultural impact of what came before it (in the case of “U Mass” in particular, that means “Wild Thing” and “Louie Louie”). The time has come to at long last grant Trompe le Monde its rightful title as the Pixies’s best album.