To be in the room for a Pixies reunion show in 2004 and remain unmoved required a heart cut from the coldest marble. Onstage were heroes who'd shaped the sound of a decade, although they hadn't kept it together long enough to benefit when their influence became a commercial supernova. At last, they were getting paid.
Fans pinched themselves, welling up in delayed justice: "If only we'd been there," some said. "If only we'd heard 'Where Is My Mind?' before Edward Norton's half-blown-off Fight Club mug was in front of it." The scene was replayed in sold-out theaters and arenas around the world. In 2004 alone, the band made a reported $14 million.
Such eye-popping business helped set a second-career precedent for all sorts of disbanded entities. There have since been new gigs for Pavement, Pulp, Kraftwerk, The Replacements—once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, now happening all the time. Exemplified by the bottomless pockets of California's Coachella, the ballooning festival industry produces some previously unthinkable resurrection every year. This year, revered rap duo Outkast will follow their headlining payday in Indio with some 40 festival appearances.
These historic reunions are no longer a surprise so much as an entitlement, where almost nothing seems truly unthinkable: Do Morrissey's morals really have no quotable price? Is there not a number big enough to get LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy to back away from the most famous "last show ever" in recent memory? And if Death himself stands in the way of the Nirvana reunion that could transform the heart pangs of grown-ass '90s teens into pure gold, let's roll out the beautiful, beatific Cobain hologram, cloaked in flannel and tattered jeans.
The Pixies extended the revival much further than most, playing a second string of shows in major cities, then another in small college towns and another where they just played Doolittle. The scope of the restart made the lack of any new material seem baldly cynical. The chemistry seemed intact. The chops appeared present and tested. Why not? They teased a rekindled fan base by recording a one-off track called "Bam Thwok" for a Shrek sequel. Despite being saddled with a goofy name, the song isn't so bad, really. When Kim Deal sings "I love all the universe, I love all the listeners. Watch it, here's 50,000 watts of goodwill!" the sentiment sounds like plain truth, coming from someone who's just seen all her life's black clouds dissipate into a bright June afternoon.
Then, for years, there was nothing. In a 2010 interview, Black Francis finally dispelled the lingering myth that he cared about expanding the Pixies' artistic legacy: "It's not to say it's not about art, but we made that art fucking 20 years ago," he said. "So forget the fucking goddamn art. Now it's time to talk about the money." It's easy to empathize, to understand the musician embracing the idea of the market repaying something that should have had great worth at its peak. But it's very hard to admire.
The stagnancy slipped into parody last year, as Kim Deal left the band to focus on her old side band, The Breeders, again, as they too racked up lucrative reunion gigs. Francis replaced her with another bass-playing Kim (Shattuck, of The Muffs); it lasted about five months.
In the midst of turnover, though, new work appeared. A humbly named EP1 was self-released last year to an audience that immediately wished it hadn't been. The Pixies had become their own Bush, offering a listless, third-generation version of previous glory. "Indie Cindy" was the straight-to-DVD sequel of "Subbacultcha," dark wit gone dimwit. While "Andro Queen" exposed a hidden fetish with the line "breathing in the smell of her musk," it lacked the perverted panache of "get your dress all wet and send it to me." This month, the Pixies followed it with EP2, a slightly better set that's still rather unfortunate. Where a classic like "Hey!" suggested much more than its short run time could contain, even the best song here, "Greens and Blues," coasts after its first minute, its old players too gassed to throw a second punch.
Reviews of both releases have been harsh to the point of openly wishing the whole reunion—including all of those 2004 heart swoons—out of existence. It's final, undeniable proof of a spark long ago snuffed. The Pixies' legacy is too strong to be destroyed by eight crappy songs and a decade of money-minded hack jobs, but their happy ending has been swallowed by a bitter shrug.
For now, Neutral Milk Hotel, who launched their seemingly inevitable reunion late last year after nearly 15 years apart, remains trapped in the golden amber of a brief career that ended before it could curdle. The Pixies had a relatively robust catalog to present, with four classic albums and a clutch of worthy B-sides; Neutral Milk Hotel's cult, though, is really built on one record, 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The album is a delivery system for the heartfelt, enigmatic mewling of reclusive songwriter Jeff Mangum.
When earlier dudes like Stephen Malkmus or Bob Pollard (both having since reunited with their bands) made puzzles of their lyrics, it was assumed that they were goofing, refusing to feel. Mangum's equally opaque riddles referenced semen-covered mountains and Anne Frank (probably). But they were delivered in a wild, earnest warble that suggested a deep emotional wellspring, giving fans a hook on which to hang their romantic devotion. If Pixies were the harbinger of Nirvana, NMH predicted mid-'00s bands like The Arcade Fire, who got big using plainer language and arena-sized oomph.
Mangum's been out of hiding for a few years, touring under his own name, and now he's reassembled a band whose name can occupy large-font real estate on festival fliers. (When In the Aeroplane was originally released, Merge expected to sell just more than 7,000 copies. It has bested expectations.)
But can such a slim body of work sustain more than a victory lap? Little evidence suggests that Mangum is bursting with new ideas he needs to share. How many years of tours can you embark on, without significant new material, before you become your own Beatlemania? Neutral Milk Hotel can only linger so long without annihilating their own mystery, and that clock's ticking.
Billy Corgan is a crank well past his prime, but at least in regard to reunions, he and the Smashing Pumpkins are perched on moral high ground. They've released new material that, even when it's sucked, at least tried to push beyond the past. He'd rather watch his critical rep slowly erode than dutifully perform "Today" a billionth time. He's called out peers with nothing to peddle but stillborn nostalgia.
"I condemn anybody who's in that business but doesn't admit [he's] in that business. When Soundgarden came back and they just played their old songs, great. I was a fan of Soundgarden, but call it for what it is," he has said. "They're just out there to have one more round at the till; same with Pavement and these other bands."
Making real money off music is so rare these days that it's hard to begrudge anyone who figures out a formula, but there must be a new tier system for legacy evaluation. Bands like Belle and Sebastian or Superchunk, who never left and keep a consistent quality level, are the rarest of treasures. And old groups like My Bloody Valentine, Portishead and Wire, who came back from hiatus with new, worthy art, deserve more respect for returning than those who only want an oversize paycheck.
If burning out now comes with a zombie "Reignite" switch built-in, maybe it's better, after all, to just fade away.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Indie rich."