Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
When The Breeders announced the reissue of a deluxe edition of 1993’s Last Splash (dubbed LSXX) and the reformation of that album’s lineup (vocalists/guitarists Kim and Kelley Deal, bassist Josephine Wiggs, and drummer Jim MacPherson), it felt like the band was giving itself a second chance. For as ubiquitous as Last Splash was during 1993 and 1994—singles “Cannonball,” “Saints,” and “Divine Hammer” were modern-rock radio staples, helping the album go platinum—The Breeders never seemed to live up to their potential.
Not that this was intentional underachievement. Shortly after playing Lollapalooza’s main stage in 1994, the band disintegrated due to Kelley Deal’s arrest and subsequent trip to rehab to treat her heroin addiction. The individual members continued playing music with other bands (The Amps, The Kelley Deal 6000, Dusty Trails) for the rest of the decade, while the Deal sisters eventually revived the Breeders name and have since released several albums and toured. But initial early-’90s hopes that The Breeders would be a huge, enduring band like Kim Deal’s other group, The Pixies (or for that matter, like original Breeder Tanya Donnelly’s then-hot band, Belly), never materialized.
In hindsight, knowledge of all of this makes the Last Splash listening experience somewhat bittersweet. Still, that doesn’t diminish the album’s impact; in fact, it’s even more obvious how much heart and soul Kim Deal poured into her first major post-Pixies creative statement. (Pod, the Breeders’ debut album, was released in 1990, while The Pixies were still together.) For starters, she co-produced Last Splash and wrote the vast majority of its music and lyrics, showing off ferocious songwriting range. The Stooges-like snarl of “S.O.S.” (later sampled by The Prodigy on “Firestarter”) and the tangled punk surge “New Year” rival the corrosive noise-jags that marked Nirvana’s In Utero, released just a month after Last Splash. But Kim’s writing can be accessible, too: The indie-pop coo of “Divine Hammer”—a veiled search for good sex—and the leering grunge bellow of “Saints” were radio-friendly. Plus, having her twin sister, Kelley, in the band added extra magic: Together, their pleading, intertwined vocals—sweet and a little rough, like angels with skinned knees—were hypnotic and mysterious.
The apex of Kim’s efforts, though, is “Cannonball,” The Breeders’ biggest hit. Unlike many other notable singles of the ’90s, “Cannonball” hooks listeners by teasing, not screaming at, them. The song opens with 15 seconds of a distorted mic check resembling the belches of an antique car horn. Next comes several beats of complete silence, slowly broken up by some syncopated drumming. Then, blissfully, Josephine Wiggs’ inimitable bass line arrives, sliding fluidly but symmetrically between two extremes, like a Newton’s cradle in slow motion. With that recurring bass riff as its foundation, “Cannonball” simmers until it boils over into a riot-punk shimmy of playful sass and spazzy noise. The chorus remains enigmatic and indistinct, but the song’s overall gist is one long, playful flirtation. How else to read its indelible phrase, “I’ll be your whatever you want / The bong in this reggae song”?
Unlike many seminal ’90s alt-rock albums, however, Last Splash has more to offer beyond “Cannonball” and other singles. Among the styles covered: sludgy shoegaze (the string-burnished “Invisible Man”), creepy dreampop (“No Aloha”), grimy surf-punk (“I Just Wanna Get Along”), freaky country (“Drivin’ On 9”), and distorted slowcore (“Mad Lucas”). Such variety makes the disc a versatile listen, too: Somehow, it feels like the suitable soundtrack for a low-budget B-movie, the best road trip ever, and a hazy, raging party.
But Last Splash is also flexible because Deal’s lyrics are more atmospheric than concrete. She sketches out stories and traumas with few details, leaving listeners to draw their own conclusions, while conveying emotions (anger, lust, betrayal, joy) without context. The absent figure in “Invisible Man” stirs up sadness and regret, while on “Do You Love Me Now?” (co-written with Kelley), the loaded question (“You’ve loved me before / Do you love me now?”) to a shadowy person devolves into a full-blown demand: “Come back to me right now!” If anything, these outlines make Last Splash’s direct statements that much more effective. “If you’re so special, why aren’t you dead?” (in “I Just Wanna Get Along”) cuts, while a single line of “No Aloha”—“Motherhood means mental freeze”—is especially poignant and thought-provoking, considering the Deals’ Midwestern roots.
That last lyric in particular zeroes in on why The Breeders and Last Splash are now more relevant than ever, and beloved not only because of rampant ’90s nostalgia. A lyric scornful of motherhood remains a radical declaration, perhaps even more extreme now than it was then. The Deals spoke to—and, at times, for—women who weren’t necessarily taking a marriage-then-kids route to find happiness. (On Last Splash, they make being creative, goofing off, lusting after cute guys, and rocking out seem much more appealing, anyway.) In a broader sense, the sisters reinforced that it was perfectly acceptable to flout convention and expectations.
At the same time, the Deals’ utter normalcy made them unique, even in an era where rock stars took pride in being casual. The sisters were strong, three-dimensional women who defied pigeonholing. They were imperfect and kind of messy, but also enormously respected. (There’s a reason The Dandy Warhols wrote an entire song lamenting how they “just want a girl as cool as Kim Deal.”) They didn’t conform to traditionally feminine ideals; in fact, they were alluring simply because they were themselves, flaws and all.
That The Breeders experienced such enormous success is a testament to a more tolerant time: It often feels like women in music today are judged far more harshly for acting like regular, complex people. Look at Taylor Swift, who’s being mocked and castigated for flitting from wrong dude to wrong dude (not an unusual dating habit for a 23-year-old). Or Ke$ha, who’s called every nasty name in the book for talking about getting wasted or doing weird, impulsive things—again, behavior that’s not necessarily odd for someone in their mid-20s.
But thanks to Last Splash, anybody looking to forge a different path—anyone who didn’t kowtow to stereotypes, or who simply didn’t have it all figured out—had The Breeders to look to as role models. Twenty years later, the Deals are still adored, admired, and respected—as much for knitting and taking care of their parents as they are for their music. And with the Last Splash resurgence, two decades on, those same listeners—now grown up, no matter where their lives went—can still reliably look to the sisters for guidance on how to navigate adulthood.