Count on this: if Black Francis (or Frank Black or Charles Thompson or whatever he’s calling himself at the time of this hypothetical) ever releases a truly awesome solo album, you’ll hear about it long before you read any reviews of it. At this point in his career, Francis has turned into a reliable piece of alt-rock machinery. His albums won’t even approach blowing you away, but there’ll be a few stray tracks on each of his albums good enough to stave off suggestions that he should pack it in and call it a day. Announcements of a new Black Francis album are greeted with a collective shrug, as the discerning sadly remind themselves that it’s been a decade and a half since Teenager of the Year and two decades since the last Pixies album. The wise move is to lament the generally merely passable nature of his recent songwriting out loud, all the while secretly hoping that his latest will herald the return of the inimitable Francis mojo.
I’ll save you the suspense (those of you who haven’t read the score) and tell you that Nonstoperotik is not the album that will return Francis to his once rightful place at the top of the heap. I’ll even cop to a little excitement when I heard the title and premise of this album. Apparently, Francis had decided to quit beating around the bush (please forgive me) and make the vagina his primary songwriting muse. Even a lightweight Pixies fan could probably cite a few songs featuring an uncomfortably libido-minded Francis (“Cactus”, and “U-Mass” spring immediately to mind). Nonstoperotik, at least in theory, should find Francis pushing that obsession right to the forefront of his work.
Some might find the idea of listening to an album featuring titles like “When I Go Down on You”, and written by a man who kind of looks like a gigantic bald head, a little off-putting, but Francis’ voice is a one-of-a-kind combination of psychosis and lechery. It may not fit the common definition of sexy, but it’s always unique and worth a listen. Even when he sounds deliberately disengaged, as on “Wild Son,” it’s a whole lot more unnerving than it is boring.
So what does Francis sound like when he’s forthrightly singing about sex? Oddly romantic, actually. The aforementioned “When I Go Down On You” is string-laden, sincere, and surprisingly sweet. “Nonstoperotik” is straight-faced balladry, minus all of the frills and bullshit euphemisms (“Pardon my cliché, but I want it”). Even if the lead guitar line that shows up halfway through the song nearly threatens to turn “Nonstoperotik” into Eric Clapton’s mawkish “Wonderful Tonight,” Francis’ frank approach to seduction is refreshing.
Yet even if Francis’ charmingly artless idea of romance is unexpected, the real high points of Nonstoperotik are the more high-octane moments. Discounting the thoroughly bland cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels,” Nonstoperotik hits its stride as soon as Francis indulges his wilder side. The trio of “Dead Man’s Curve”, “Corrina”, and “Six Legged Man” give Nonstoperotik a perfectly timed, mid-album boost, showing that Francis hasn’t lost his penchant for unruliness and unexpected songwriting twists. Album closer “Cinema Star” oscillates between intriguingly skewed verses, a goofy falsetto in the pre-chorus, and an undeniably winning chorus.
The charms of Nonstoperotik are not readily apparent on first listen, and even after a few listens there are certainly areas where the album is clearly lacking. It would be a stretch to say that Francis is fully re-vitalized and making music that rivals the best of his career, but he’s committed to his quirks, and he’s brought a surprising amount of depth and distinctiveness to Nonstoperotik. Moreover, it certainly takes courage to make an album about fucking this late into one’s career. For those who are worried that I’m simply making excuses for a personal hero that has roughed the edges off his earlier groundbreaking work, I assure you that’s not the case. Believe me, I’m cozy with the idea of aging musicians I admire going soft in their later years. I expect it, but we must be wary of the opposite inclination; that of instinctively pissing all over someone’s work simply because they are getting on in years. Considering Francis’ biography, Nonstoperotik is better than it should be. Ignoring his biography, Nonstoperotik is pretty fucking good.