The make-out record. The last dance at the school disco. The album you put on to aid in the seduction of an attractive lady/gentleman/other. What do you reach for? Marvin Gaye? Barry White? Maybe if you’re a bit more ‘New Wave’ it’s Blondie, or Peggy Lee for the hepcat.
An artist who’s name rarely comes up on lists of ‘Music To Make Her Go Weak At The Knees’ has been ploughing a singular furrow in the glamorous world of indie rock for over 20 years now. Born Charles Michael Kiteridge Thompson IV, you’d know him better as Black Francis, front-bellower and Spanish-mangler with the legendary Pixies. As a solo artist he mellowed his dark, eviscerating post-punk-post-hardcore-Bibles-and-spaceships persona, switched it around and became Frank Black, whose oeuvre has grown increasingly close to FM-friendly alt.country in recent times. A clue that he may have felt his role as an Alternative Nation Tom Petty was growing stale comes in this reversion to his earlier moniker and a promise, perhaps, of harder things to come.
Has it arrived in the shape of Nonstoperotik? Well, not exactly: the post-Soft Cell title is an indication that his preoccupations may be a little less bound to the surreal sturm und drang of previous records, and a little closer to the groin. But it’s not a radical left-turn into hi-NRG disco-synth music, or bump n’grind R’n’B. Frustratingly it remains for the most part, a typical ‘Frank Black Francis’ record, a familiar combination of whipcord and velvet, which only really sparks into life in its final third.
More of that later. A shuffly-drum intro begins the album’s moody opener Lake Of Sin, and Charles is back on tried-and-true territory: religious imagery expressed through the theme of drowning or baptism. The deceptively laid-back Oh My Tidy Sum pitches us into a “twisted arrangement/ On the floor of a Russian forest”. An orgy maybe? Or a death scene? Charles isn’t saying for sure, his lyrics typically as lucid as they are vague. The folksy Rabbits has a definite, Scarborough Fair quality, olde worlde guitar-picking to the fore, an air of the distant past (like Greenwich Village in the 1960s perhaps…). He turns Gram Parsons‘ Wheels into a good ol’ FM country stomper, the sort of thing you’d be proud to have blasting from the cab of your Mack truck as it coasts over a deserted mountain pass, plastic Jesus bobbing on the dashboard. Maybe your truck is heading to Dead Man’s Curve, as Charles revisits another of his previous obsessions, the authentic surf ballad, here replete with Pixies-esque yelps. (Charles often tells of how a member of Sun Ra Arkestra once paid him the dubious compliment “Boy, you sure can HOLLAH!”. It seems he still can.)
Anyone waiting for the ‘Erotik’ of the title will be impatiently tapping their watch as the brief, throwaway Corrina skitters by, with little to distinguish it but some lovely Rhodes organ. Six-Legged Man is another throwback, this time to the world of his earliest work as Frank Black. With its mutated hero, breakneck pace and nagging, relentlessly circular chords it’s practically a re-write of Men In Black (no, not the Will Smith one). Wild Son is like The Doors‘ Riders On The Storm as played by a saloon-bar band in an old western, brooding basslines accompanied by a honky-tonk piano. The long instrumental outro is torn off suddenly as though someone has flipped a switch for the main event.
And indeed this is the case as the album moves out of the shallow water for its last three, triumphant tracks. When I Go Down On You is about EXACTLY what you probably think it can’t POSSIBLY be about: yes, Black Francis, it seems, does enjoy a bit of face-time with the wife’s undercarriage. But this isn’t expressed lewdly or suggestively. It’s a swooningly, movingly romantic ode to the idea of sex as transcendence, the synth-strings trembling with emotion, the chords graceful and sad. It’s the best thing on the record, and one of Charles’ finest numbers in any incarnation as he loses himself in a place where “The universe explodes/ And the world goes straight to Hell”.
He almost manages the same trick of horny frankness versus heartfelt tenderness on the title track, which pits his yearning to be ‘Inside of you-hoo-hoo’ with almost Liberace-like levels of synthesised schmaltz. That’s not a criticism; there’s always time for this sort of schmaltz. The album ends with its second-best track. Cinema Star sees Charles the Storyteller at his most vivid and compelling as he finds a ladder behind his TV that takes him far below his floorboards into a journey of jealousy, self-discovery and self-doubt. The album ends as it began, with Charles surrounded by water and clinging onto dear life (“My ship is beginning to sink”).
And of course Black Francis’ ‘Sex’ album turns out to be anything but. This is not a make-out record after all, it’s just a patchily endearing glimpse inside the head of one of rock’s most idiosyncratic survivors as he contemplates his future and mulls over his past. He may never blowtorch the listener again like he did in those early days of the Pixies, but he still has more ideas per record than most bands have in their entire careers. It’s a slight album, but by the standards he himself set, and patchy Black Francis is better than no Black Francis at all.