Pained & Disdained
Pavement had the immense mixed fortune of emerging as a cult band at a time when every other guitar-based cult band on the books seemed to be holding mass initiation rites. Their 1992 debut on Matador, Slanted & Enchanted, serendipitously compiled a sort of Cliffs Notes version of the lo-fi canon for indie rock's "alternative" fellow travelers, just as a nation of former college radio DJs launched rosy-lensed careers as high-minded promo shills or alt-boosting journalists. At such a heady moment, who could blame confused souls for adulating an elitist collector of Krautrock LPs and his shambling band of trust-funders straight outta Stockton, California? Or circulating an urban myth that would become a sort of '90s "Paul is dead" among supposedly media-savvy Sub Populists: "Pavement are the next big thing"?
And yet Pavement's flirtation with their fawning fan boys (and girls) remained willfully aloof, as they pretended to court a phantasmic mass audience with whom they shared little more than a mutual ignorance of one another. By 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Malkmus was muttering the cryptic text of a Let's Go! Bohemia with such an even mix of awkwardness and assurance that it seemed positively gauche to ask what it all meant. The band, meanwhile, sculpted its mistuned psychedelia into a grand, sad, goofy approximation of the natural world. In other words, Pavement had made themselves over as an R.E.M. for smart people. And now, for every noise-pop die-hard who still considers their second album (if not their first) a sellout, there are dozens of fans who still haven't forgiven Malkmus for not wanting to become Michael Stipe.
Add those numbers up, however, and you'll still find yourself several hundred thousand consumers short of a gold record. Not that Malkmus, who graduated from the University of Virginia-Charlottesville with a history degree, is particularly adept at such calculations. Yawning uninterested replies to my questions over the phone from England, he not only insists that he never expected mass success for his band but claims to be 30 years old--this only five minutes after saying that he received his B.A. in 1988. I dutifully point out that this would make our Stephen a precocious 19 when he left college--hardly Doogie Howser stats, but prodigious nonetheless. "Actually, I'm a little older than 30," he confesses, unabashed. "I'm in my 30s. I guess I'm already doing that Hollywood thing, lying about my age, like Courtney Love or something." Malkmus issues all this in the same bored, unruffled drawl with which he tosses off a flip reference to Spin's lukewarm six-out-of-ten rating for the new album, Terror Twilight, or fends off accusations that his band's cultural moment has passed. What? Him worry?
Maybe so. When "Spit on a Stranger" becomes the latest Pavement single not to climb the charts this summer, while the CD it calls home remains firmly ensconced on display shelves nationwide, that drawl will again be the voice you never hear on your radio. Will it matter that the guitars chime with the same delicately arpeggiated empathy that once assured us that "Everybody Hurts" and now assures us that everybody loves--complete with the elegant bachelor ambivalently croaking his troth? Will it matter that the line "Honey, I'm a prize, and you're a catch, and we're a perfect match" is as tenderly post-ironic an indecent proposal as you could imagine? Or that Malkmus has become the greatest non-singer of his generation, his flat mewl the distillation of a mutant strain of melancholy that draws equally from Jonathan Richman's tender quaver, Lou Reed's flattened affect, and David Lowery's valley-boy smirk? This voice, collegiate yet never collegial, has an undeserved resonance with the band's coterie of fans: Perhaps it even signifies, for some, an erudite Caucasian authenticity. But for everyone else, even after all these years, Malkmus still sounds like some dude who can't sing.
Granted, love as a mutual contempt for the outside world isn't the sort of sentiment most folks would care to dance to--nor is displaying your affection for your partner by expectorating on passersby. But that delicate balance of sensitivity and disdain has always been the lynchpin of Pavement's sensibility. Malkmus has always sparingly allocated his empathy for a "you" that's highly selective if not singular. And fans, happy masochists that we are, continue to listen, imagining that we might just number among his second person plural. Secretly, we fret that when Malkmus murmurs, "Don't waste your precious breath/Explaining that you are worthwhile," he's not looking at us but glancing over our shoulder at someone whose record collection, reading list, or personal aura is just a teensy bit hipper than ours.
Still, it's worth noting that the plucky wah-wah bounce of "...and Carrot Rope," from which that last lyric is excerpted, closes out Terror Twilight with a surreal optimism that's as far from the despondent elegies of midperiod Pavement as that stuff was from their 1989 hiss-track pop. Compare the singer's new glee to the solipsistic sigh with which he placed a loner's want ad for a "prison architect" on 1997's Brighten the Corners, a concept album about his peevish reluctance to assume his rightful place in the upper middle class. (Not out of any incipient bolshevism, mind you--just simple petulance.) By contrast, Terror Twilight sprawls out in the liberty that affluence affords--the comparatively relaxed Malkmus now seeming content to sing in his chains like the sea.
But it's a long, strange trip nonetheless, and the album's overarching tone can still descend into a moody rumble. Like a gaggle of old hippies jamming--hell, at times like the Grateful Dead themselves--Pavement often threaten to ramble on with a complacency that comes when you've freed yourself from the expectations of others. And yet they never quite do. Though the guitars glance off half-acknowledged melodies, an invisible hand of impeccable taste reins them in with a dynamic shift just when the band threatens to veer into its own navel. Hardly HORDE-ready good-time boogie, this, but it's still more musically limber--and ideologically sensible--than the intricate technophobia of Radiohead's OK Computer, with which Terror Twilight shares producer Nigel Godrich.
In retrospect, Pavement's mid-'90s gestures toward accessibility seem like acts of noblesse oblige more than career moves. Just as a page poet self-consciously employs the formal constraints of an outmoded rhyme scheme, the band had the good sense to exploit pop's constrictions rather than noodle into free-form oblivion while Malkmus performed his spoken-word poetry. True, the group shrewdly hedged its bets between selling itself and selling itself short, and those who prefer their cult band of choice to engage in the drama of cultural insurgency--or at least to have some subcultural relevance--have every right to excuse themselves from the Pavement bookmobile.
But now it's 1999, and Nirvana's crusade to demonstrate that you don't have to wear leather pants to sing pop-metal on MTV has proven so successful that the Goo Goo Dolls are now free to wear leather pants and sing pop-metal on MTV--with impunity, even. In the end, perhaps Pavement's hermetically sealed simulacrum of a career took a wiser route than punk revolutionaries or pop democrats would care to admit.
Pavement perform at First Avenue on Monday, June 7 at 10:00 p.m. and Tuesday, June 8 at 6:00 p.m.; (612) 338-8388.
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