uring his now-lengthy solo career, Frank Black has strayed far from the pit bull snap of the Pixies, betraying his influences and passions more nakedly than with his former band. Whether this is a conscious, “Fuck you, I’ve already released four stone-cold classics”-move or a more polite “How do you suggest I follow the Pixies?”-move, who’s to say? But Black’s been playing the percentages, both in terms of style and substance, for over a decade now: Fire often enough and you’re bound to hit once in a while.
It would be revisionist and mostly bullshit to try and wring any country music influences from the Pixies sound, but Black’s been openly mining the genre since 2001’s Dog in the Sand. Honeycomb seems to be the culmination of that ongoing flirtation with pedal steel guitars and overtly sentimental lyrics, a set of 14 autumnal genre exercises executed by a polished group of Nashville session musicians. This is no Pixies-cum-Hank Williams mash-up; Honeycomb is unapologetically weepy, no-holds-barred country music. These are Frank Black songs only in the most utilitarian sense.
Logically, country isn’t a bad fit for Black. It’s classic outsider art and Frank wouldn’t be the first oddball to embrace its loner culture. Wouldn’t a genre that often winks so hard at listeners that it tears up be an intriguing vehicle for Black’s lyrics, which at their best are tongue-in-cheek bizarre? Fitting Black into country music at least seems easier than fitting country music into Black’s past, but Honeycomb proves too rigid and self-serious to make good on Black’s strengths. It would be silly to condemn Black for wandering outside his comfort zone, but it’s hard to accept the fact that under any other name this album would be marketed to, and enjoyed by, the Mellencamp/Hiatt/Petty crowd.
Black misses an opportunity here to hitch his spaz poetry to country’s narrative tradition. “Song of the Shrimp” is a goofy/sad Finding Nemo for the South, but it’s not Black’s song, rather a Roy Bennet and Sid Tepper composition made famous by Elvis. “Sing for Joy,” a Black original, does better, with a full-bodied, sticky acoustic guitar accompanying a violent tale of alcoholism and vagrancy, but that’s it. The rest of the album is full of bland sentiments painfully pieced together. On “Lone Child” he croons, “I don’t like you much / I am like a wolf / I’m not full of your hate / I’m full of my grace.” Having long ago lost the grit of his youth and still lacking the heft of age, Black has rarely sounded less appealing.
Still, there are highlights. A cover of the Dan Penn and Chips Morman’s standard “Dark End of the Street” is notable both for Black’s strangely endearing falsetto and for the band’s pillow-soul arrangement. “My Life is in Storage” is Honeycomb’s most moving lyric and the only song that looks past its adopted genre for inspiration. “Last Goodbye” is a surprisingly competent duet with Black’s now ex-wife, but hearing Black sing a divorce ballad is his most obvious “Things done changed…” moment since “Whatever Happened to Pong?” When “Pong” opened Black’s Teenager of the Year it was clear that while the Pixies weren’t coming back, there was still an artful and significant artist to explore. “Last Goodbye” just cements the “Holy shit, Frank Black sure is old” nightmare.
No one has come to expect genius from Black’s solo career; at this point it would probably take a firing squad to remove all the albatrosses from Frank’s back. But no one should be this interested in the negative space between James Taylor and The Eagles. Fifteen years ago, Black raged so brilliantly that it would’ve seemed easy money betting that he’d get bad before he got uninteresting; Honeycomb should really only please those who wagered otherwise.