Rumors have been orbiting the Internet (and burgers have been frying up at McDonald’s!) that Pavement is about to split. Now, I ain’t no Kreskin, but doesn’t that sound about right to you? Everyone at Matador assures this critic that no break-up is imminent (label head Gerard Cosloy didn’t name his own band the Air Traffic Controllers for nothing). But I’m a little stinker, so I say, Prove me wrong, fellows, prove me wrong!
Bands stick together for three reasons: money, friendship and art. Two out of three and you have something, otherwise what’s the point? Pavement has made a career out of swimming between the three, embracing digression, turning the bridges of obscure punk-rock tunes into ballad melodies as if they were beboppers jamming at Minton’s. Without “resorting” to technology, they’ve cut-and-pasted organically, paralleling the ever-growing baggy pants of the deejay. By sucking the marrow out, these bricolage fanatics have been able to keep the skeleton of innovation in rock-and-roll alive a little longer than anyone would have expected. Which gets back to money, friendship and art, and Pavement’s new release Terror Twilight (Matador).
No. 1: Money. The band’s brief popularity in the early 1990′s seems to have been something of a fluke; they were really too smarty-pants to ever catch on with the masses. The kids crave wistfulness, but if you step over the line, you’re stuck in cultsville, which is why Nirvana broke big and Sonic Youth has yet to ship 200,000. Pavement’sbreakthrough-ishsingle, 1992′s “Summer Babe,” contained a melody appropriated from the English Beat which worked its subliminal 80′s magic on the unconcerned listener. Ah, youth! As Oscar Wilde put it, “The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.”
The thing is, leader-vocalist Stephen Malkmus’ emotional (and sometimes anti-emotional) palette has been considerably more ambitious than a melancholic downward glance, which he also indulges to this day. By 1995′s Wowee Zowee , a wide-ranging and underappreciated masterpiece that manages to sum up 30 years of pop music in 70 minutes, the audience and the critics had split for less complicated pleasures, desiring more songs about buildings and food. It must be frustrating: You go out of your way to make your sound specific and unique, and these are precisely the qualities that drive your fans away from you. This has forced the band down a neurotic path of ruin (and may also explain why they all chipped in to buy a racehorse named Speedy Service). But more on that later.
No. 2: Friendship. Another rumor to consider is that Mr. Malkmus recorded Terror Twilight himself with little more than the input of producer Nigel (Radiohead’s OK Computer , Beck’s Mutations ) Godrich-the Hugh (Sting’s The Soul Cages , Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required ) Padgham of an aging Generation X. This would make the album Pavement’s equivalent to All Shook Down , the Replacements’ haphazard final LP, which was, by all accounts, a Paul Westerberg solo project Replacement-ized for financial necessity. It’s apt. Pavement’s paradigm briefly replaced the Replacements’ as the American Indie Rock Fight Plan-thinking man’s music without seeming so.
Again, this rumor has been denied-plausibly, in fact, since the entire band did fly off to England to record it together. But it would do much to explain the album’s sound. Here was a band that had been able to maintain a cohesive group identity while living in five different states. Yet on Terror Twilight , the sound is less sprawling, more compact, dull, and autumnal, in the manner of All Shook Down . It would not surprise me if Mr. Godrich is partially to blame, but where are Scott (Spiral Stairs) Kannberg’s spiraling stairs? On a tight leash, it would seem; this is the first Pavement album not to feature any songs by the guitarist.
Likewise, Pavement has suffered behind the drum kit since middle-aged own-worst-enemy Gary Young was shown the door between Slanted and Enchanted (1992) and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994). They replaced him with Steve West-with Bob Nastanovich continuing to do the stand-up snare-floor tom-Moog work (call him the indie Tito Puente)-but the two percussionists still can’t approximate Mr. Young’s crazed inspiration. The skinwork this time is weirdly straightforward and plodding, making it all the more melancholy. As a final blast, Terror Twilight ‘s sound makes a poignant sense. As a midcareer move, it’s desultory.
Which brings us to No. 3: Art. Of course, by art I must mean career. For the band-and everyone else in indie rock-is really in a difficult space right now. After playing for 11 years, what artist wants to live off the meager earnings of his racehorse? (Don’t answer that.) Even at its most popular, Pavement was a difficult band in a declining genre. And even then, most critics didn’t really “get” all of the musical quotation and Joycean wordplay. (“Mandrake/ This is the snake/ I got it on the camera for posterity/ But my stolen wild orchids got cut/ See those sherpas sherpin’ from the autobus,” sings Stephen on “Platform Blues.”)
Most musicians of their ilk have found themselves slipping into the salvation of irrelevancy, or worse, cutting the edges off-brightening the corners, to invoke the band’s last LP, which signaled the beginning of their decline. Some might call this “growing up,” but maturity doesn’t need that sort of public acceptance. One can look to Pavement’s primary early inspiration, the Fall, as a band that chose to weird out rather than compromise after its cultural moment had passed. Rest assured, Mark E. Smith has never grown up (he still sucks at the bottle), but the Fall’s last couple of albums, 1997′s Levitate and the recent The Marshall Suite , stack up with their finest, even if no one is listening. But that’s not the point.
This sort of compromise is an impulse forgivable in humans, but not in art. Your audience moves on and so you attempt an esthetic negotiation without selling out. You play to what you feel are your strengths-your authorship. You simplify and hope that it’s the song, not the singer. But songs are little more than the accumulation of little bits of meaning, a guitar lick here, the backing vocals there. Terror Twilight is intelligent, as always, and even thematically cohesive in its filching of British pop nuance, from Ray Davies’ cadences (“Spit on a Stranger,” “Folk Jam”) to Black Sabbath and Status Quo melodies (“The Hexx” and “Cream of Gold,” respectively). Mr. Malkmus understands where prog rock and punk overlap, obviously treasures his Hatfield and the North LP’s and knows that metal is a songwriters’ medium.
But he also thinks himself a writer. (Indeed, check out his paean to the girls of Bennington College in a recent issue of the lit journal Open City .) And what he doesn’t understand, either by choice or necessity, is that it’s not enough to give us the song without the detail, even on a singer-songwriter album. Carole King may be a songwriter, but people also listen to Tapestry for the dry sound of her fingers hitting the piano keys, or to Cat Stevens for the closeness of his breath on the mike on Tea for the Tillerman . Remove those gradations and you’re left with little more than a blueprint, just someone attempting to placate the listener.
Mr. Malkmus may have been pleased as punch listening to himself on the control room cans; directness can create the illusion of clarity for the artist. “You’re a hungry matron and you are just what I need, I was tired of the best years of my life,” he sings in “Billie.” (He’s talking to us, right?) But what does that mean to the stalwart listener who embraced Pavement for its obfuscation in the first place? Probably little, as they’ve moved on, too, to Ryoji Ikeda and Godspeed You Black Emperor.
As Ween might put it, that’s the snake, dude: Don’t tell your tale if you’re no longer you. Otherwise, it might just be best to get on that horse and gallop off.