[9 August 2011]
PopMatters Music Editor
Talk about a late career renaissance: Stephen Malkmus has been on quite a roll of late, between the well-received Pavement reunion tour last year and a new album to his name that’s receiving the strongest buzz he’s probably ever generated with the Jicks. Malkmus and Pavement finally got their due from a popularity standpoint after getting back together again in 2010, playing to the large crowds that eluded them during their mid-1990s heyday and finally banking in on all the indie cred they’d built up over the years. And the old band even learned some new tricks, as the once ornery, willfully difficult group decided there was nothing wrong with being crowd pleasers. At its last U.S. concert date at the iconic Hollywood Bowl, you could say that Pavement finally fulfilled its destiny and became the biggest band in the world for at least one night, playing to a rapt crowd spread out as far as the eye could see. The experience even drew Malkmus out of the shell he sometimes retreated to on stage in the past, as he implored the band to hurry up and have a sense of urgency in order to make it through all the fan favorites for the sake of the audience.
Perhaps building on the momentum and genuinely warm memories of the reunion, the soon-to-be-released Mirror Traffic is a return to form for Malkmus, by all accounts the most Pavement-like of his Jicks recordings. Whether it’s fair or even constructive to make that comparison, you can never quarantine the past, as Malkmus once infamously put it himself: Mirror Traffic sounds a lot like the album long-time Malkmus fans have been hankering for, where the only difference between the periods before and after Pavement was just in name.
Maybe Malkmus found some kind of fountain of youth on the comeback tour, since Mirror Traffic mixes and matches his trademark cool with an off-the-wall pop punch in a way that hearkens back to his earlier gig. The new effort is full of rock nuggets of the sort that Malkmus cut his teeth on, mostly swearing off of the ‘70s guitar jams that the Jicks had become known for. Above all, Malkmus’ vocals are as spry and fresh as they’ve been in quite awhile, the lyrics snapping with more bite and style. If nothing else, Mirror Traffic will revive that favorite pastime of indie wallflowers everywhere: the deciphering and dissection of Malkmus’ lines. Whether it’s the scandalous poli-sci pop of “Senator” (“What the senator wants / Is a blow job”) or what seems like open-ended middle-age life lessons on the indie throwback “Tigers” (“Change is all we need / Through and through”), Malkmus reminds us how much fun and how it’s all too easy to read—too much—into his lyrics.
So what better way is there to mark Malkmus’ past milestones and present achievements than to revisit his most memorable lines from some of the best Pavement songs? Malkmus’ worldplay, enigmatic and open to interpretation as it was, revealed different aspects to Pavement, often hinting at a sentimental, emotionally in-touch side that belied the wise-acre reputation that preceded the band. This stroll down memory lane’s shady lane only underscores how a collection of Malkmus’ sharpest turns-of-phrase comes off like a veritable Bartlett’s Famous Quotations for the Gen X indie set. Those are a few things you notice when, to riff off Malkmus’ own words, you go back to those gold sounds.
Bring on the major leagues
For Stephen Malkmus to utter the thought “Bring on the major leagues” is probably too blunt to be considered ironic—and anyway, Pavement could’ve made good on that wish (or threat?) any time it wanted to. Instead, Pavement’s last hurrah might actually be expressing just a tinge of regret over what coulda-shoulda-woulda been. It’s hard not to argue that “Major Leagues” came at a time when Pavement was past its prime, still good enough to hit for a solid average on muscle memory alone, but no longer at the top of its game. Maybe it was hardly as subtle and complex as Pavement’s bittersweet best, but “Major Leagues” addressed Pavement’s fate with biting humor and wistful wit.
You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation
Of the sequel to your life
Some have chalked up Pavement’s worldview to a devil-may-care-less attitude, but what the tone of Malkmus’ vocals really captured, with equal parts bemusement and grudging tenderness, was how alienation in its most ordinary, everyday forms feels like. Revealing a more mature Pavement in its crafted rock sound and evocative storytelling, “Shady Lane” reflected on how life imitates art imitating life, its scenes from unasked-for adulthood surreal precisely in how mundane they are. The blind dates and the break-ups inevitably end up in a suburban cul-de-sac, as Malkmus tells it, and how that happens can sometimes seem like a screenplay we’re watching of our own lives.
Nature kids, I
They don’t have no function
It figures that the closest Pavement ever came to breaking through into the mainstream had more to do with shit-talking Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins than the catchy tune that delivered the butt-kicking—to the extent that that’s possible through faux-country tones and a cracking falsetto. Backing down from a pissing match, Malkmus, rather unconvincingly, claimed that he was dissing his own band as much as anyone else, pointing to the absurd, awkward, and barely perceptible “I/they” hair-splitting in the lyrics as proof. Whatever its true intentions, the song did lay down a marker between indie cred and selling out at the pinnacle of the alt-rock feeding frenzy.
Maybe he is
Maybe he’s not
Eyes in the socket
Eyes in the socket
Now I’m gonna sock it
A badge of honor for any Pavement fan is having an encyclopedic knowledge of the band’s lesser known EPs, B-sides, and pre-Slanted discography. Everyone’s got what he thinks is a forgotten favorite that happens to be the same thing for a whole legion of other devoted fans—“Debris Slide”, from the 1991 Perfect Sound Forever EP, fits into that category. With its crappy tape-hiss production and rudimentary riffs, “Debris Slide” is early Pavement in its natural state, primitively imaginative, ramshackle, and unabashed. But there’s already a sense of mystique present, which is the only way to explain how Malkmus’ scatted, nonsensical wordplay comes off like Dada-esque poetry.
But no one will dance with us
“We Dance” was far from Pavement’s most ambitious or powerful artistic statement, but the enigmatic tune may have been one of its boldest: Rather than following up the on-the-cusp almost-hits of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain with a modern-rock anthem you thought Malkmus had up his sleeve, Wowee Zowee‘s opening track best articulated Pavement’s contrarian streak on its most challenging and complex album. In the leadoff spot, “We Dance” set the tone for a change in direction from Pavement’s manifest destiny, with its meandering pace, steely acoustic sound, and Malkmus’ whack faux-British accent. It takes two to tango, and the understated “We Dance” was almost a test to see if you were gonna stay with the one who brung ya.
Say goodnight to the rock ‘n’ roll era
The coda to Crooked Rain, “Fillmore Jive” capped off what could be interpreted as Pavement’s concept album about the music industry with an end-of-history toast snuck into one of the group’s sprawling and expansive epics. There’s a sense of artistic ambition to “Fillmore Jive” that stretches Malkmus beyond his comfort zone of cheeky wordplay and thrift-store riffs, as Pavement creates a pretty, panoramic palette here that’s as experimental as this band gets. It’s a bold enough statement that implies the end of the rock ‘n’ roll era could have been the start of something big for Pavement.
Captivate the senses like a ginger ale rain
Malkmus’ most memorable lines might be the ones that seem like cryptic aphorisms or gnomic nuggets of wisdom, but he’s just as good at setting the scene with descriptive language that paints a picture like you’ve never imagined it. And the world as seen through Malkmus’ mind’s eye is rarely as vivid as it is on the languid charmer “Motion Suggests”, on which the stuff of everyday life becomes all poetic with imagery of “window-passing rainy days” and “ginger ale rain”. As with much of Wowee Zowee, “Motion Suggests” grows on you with an impressionistic impression and its slowly unfolding beauty, proving again that Malkmus isn’t about instant gratification.
While you wholeheartedly believe Pavement mascot Bob Nastanovich when he’s howling the refrain of “I’m trying” as he prowls around on stage performing “Conduit for Sale!” live, the original Slanted and Enchanted version doth protest too much. In other words, it lives up to Pavement’s lazy-ass cred by attempting to dispel the notion—to the point that Malkmus’ voice cracks by the end of the song. But considering the way Malkmus delivers the lines with increasing earnestness and agitation as his Fall-like spoken word moves towards entropy, it’s like he knows you don’t really believe him.
I can’t sing it strong enough
Cause that kind of strength I just don’t have
Coming on the heels of “Conduit for Sale!” on the Slanted tracklist is “Zürich Is Stained”, which is the closest thing to Pavement’s honest-to-goodness slacker anthem. With the vocals mustering barely enough strength to croon along to the wobbly, slip-sliding guitars, “Zürich” makes giving up on trying and throwing in the towel into infectious indie rock. It’s a testament to the way Malkmus can seemingly toss off lines that somehow make you think they’re more profound than they initially seem. Or maybe it’s harder work to be on cruise control that we give him credit for—as he tells it later on the track, “You think it’s easy / But you’re wrong.”
They want to have it, Cotton’s dream
But Increase had them mounted
And they burned on open fires
Stephen Malkmus studied history in college, and it’s his vast knowledge of trivia and cultural ephemera that makes Pavement’s songs so rich and deep in their allusive nature. To really get into Malkmus’ head, you often felt like Pavement records shouldn’t have just come with lyric sheets, but with annotations and a concordance. No matter how much an indie smart aleck thought he knew, Malkmus gave you the idea he knew more. To cite one of the best examples, “Give It a Day”, off the obscure Wowee-era Pacific Trim EP, made the Salem witch trials its source of inspiration, taking the moldy oldies out of the textbook and cramming ‘em into a rowdy ditty.
Oh, listen to me
I’m on the stereo
Pavement conveyed ambiguity and ambivalence better than any of its peers, more or less defining the sensibility that the indie underground would be working from in the ‘90s. Malkmus’ gift for open-ended meaning is present and accounted for on the single “Stereo”: Was the chorus an ironic jab at actually not being on the stereo or a clever attempt at wish fulfillment to Jedi mind-trick their way into airplay? Is “Stereo” a self-effacing dig at Pavement never becoming as popular as some had predicted or an almost earnest last gasp to live up to its commercial potential before the opportunity slipped away? What’s best about the beefed-up sound of “Stereo” and much of Brighten the Corners was that all of those possibilities were plausible.
Someone’s gonna save me
My heart is made of gravy
“AT&T” is one of those Pavement songs that conveyed mixed messages about what the band’s mission and raison d’être were, announced in the opening lyrics quoted above. The group that was gonna save you—and maybe rock’n'roll in the bargain—was also a band of merry pranksters who were probably more preoccupied with how to squeeze “gravy” into a rhyme than plotting a career path. These phrases could sum up Malkmus’ m.o. as the voice of a cultural movement who didn’t want to be that, asking for existential guidance, only to chase it with some nonsense that pulled the chair out from under you. And that’s just scratching the surface of this rollercoaster ride of an indie romper, which moves from some of Pavement’s catchiest bits to one of those wacky, free-form Malkmus breakdowns.
You can’t help but read a little too much into the title of “Shoot the Singer”, especially since the ever evasive Malkmus usually walls himself off in so many layers of linguistic play. There’s a gallows humor to Malkmus’ lyrics on the track that suggests that he’s not up for the role that was preordained for him. While “Shoot the Singer” possesses Malkmus’ ineffable ability to convey mixed feelings without caring, it also gives an ever-so-slight glimpse of how vulnerable the unflappable frontman can be. You might not be inclined to take him at face value, but you believe him here when he tells you the “song is sacred” and feel his burden as his voice trails off, cautioning “don’t expect.”
I learned the truth
The truth of the words
Truth I made for you because it’s just as good
“Trigger Cut” was Pavement at its postmodern best, which, of course, is saying a lot. With Malkmus’ intuitive gift for vocal riffing and rhyming front and center here, no other opening lines from the Pavement songbook probably piqued your interest and kept you scratching your head like the surreal, free-associating lyrics of “Trigger Cut”: You might never figure out what “Lies and betrayals / Fruit-covered nails / Electricity and lust” is referring to, but that doesn’t mean you won’t keep trying. And amidst all the vividly weird imagery and the song’s mysterious semi-narrative, Malkmus slips in the lesson on poststructural semiotics quoted above without you even noticing it, making it go down easy with his spoke-sung vocals. The truth of the words, indeed.
And you can never quarantine the past
With its retro-ish sound, Pavement could make you feel nostalgic for something that never actually existed, an uncanny sensation that “Gold Soundz” captured better than anything else in the Pavement catalog. While Malkmus’ wordsmithing often took center stage—and, of course, it does here too—the band’s music had a remarkable gift for matching the lyrics in expressing just the right wry and yearning tone. “Gold Soundz” was indeed golden, recalling some heretofore undiscovered AM-rock gem that you’d thought you heard before, except there’s no way you possibly could have. That might be the most appropriate way to describe Pavement, as hitmakers in an alternate universe.
I’ve got a lot things to do
A lot of places to go
I’ve got a lot of good things coming my way
But I’m afraid to say that you’re not one of them
On “Box Elder”, from the band’s debut EP Slay Tracks (1933-1969), Pavement showed that it was destined to be going places, just not along the path of least resistance. If the easy melody of “Box Elder” wasn’t evidence enough, Malkmus was all but telling you in the lyrics that he knew how to make those good things come his way; it was just that he wasn’t sure he wanted to go that route. Even as it hinted at Malkmus’ natural gifts as a songwriter, “Box Elder”, in its sentimental but skeptical outlook, announced just how non-committal and standoffish Pavement was at the very core of its being, grabbing hold of your attention only to become ambivalent about whether it actually cared about that or not.
Songs mean a lot
When songs are bought
And so are you
As goofy and fun as it appears to be, you might not notice how deep “Cut Your Hair”, er, cuts: It’s at once Pavement’s most enduring and endearing hit as well as its most scathing commentary on the superficiality of the post-Nevermind music biz, coming at a cultural moment when Malkmus and company could’ve written their own check on any major label. Piling on one absurdly catchy element on top of another, from the earworming ooo-ooo-ooo’s to the mock fist-pumping chorus to the riffy guitars, “Cut Your Hair” was proof positive that Pavement knew what the game was all about and how to win it, if only the band had decided to play along.
I’ve got style, miles and miles
So much style and it’s wasting
You could say “Frontwards” was Malkmus at his most coy and tongue-in-cheek, except that what he was singing about was completely true. Pavement’s anti-style style has often been imitated, but never duplicated. Dubbed the Grace Kelly of indie rock by Courtney Love, Malkmus, at the height of his powers, exuded a nonchalance about his skills and talents, giving you the idea that he knew he was working with what’s, more often than not, a disposable art form, while somehow being able to elevate it into something more. With more pithy chestnuts than he knew what to do with, Malkmus, early on, had the ability to come off cool and throw down brilliant lines without ever seeming to try, especially when you compare him to all those who didn’t have so much style to waste.
I will wait there
I’ll be waiting forever
Waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting
Who said Pavement didn’t have heart? “Summer Babe” is Pavement’s idea of a love song: On it, Malkmus seems at once suspicious of what that convention represents, but is still green enough as an artist not to be totally jaded about it either. If anything, all the layers to the song imply a sense of emotion and desire so strong that Malkmus can’t help but wrap it up in surreal imagery and allusions that are probably going over your head. “Summer Babe” is hopelessly romantic in an indirect way—not even the “Ice, baby” in-joking at the beginning nor the painterly descriptions of shiny robes and plastic-tipped cigars can totally draw you away from Malkmus’ true feelings. You ultimately find them in the lyrics, when Malkmus, after all the waiting, waiting, waiting, gives in to his feelings in spite of himself as he calls out “You’re my summer babe,” though you kinda sensed what was going on all along in guitar lines that express yearning in a way that’s satisfyingly unfulfilled.
I was dressed for success
But success it never comes
In typically inscrutable fashion, Malkmus might as well have told the story of Pavement before it happened on “Here”, like he was almost willing a self-fulfilling prophecy—except that it’s hard to argue that success never came for a band as revered and influential as this one. Depending on what you think of Pavement’s legacy and your definition of making it big, “Here” is either self-consciously prescient or self-effacingly wrong. Standing out above and beyond any other song by the group for its melancholy undertone, “Here” finds Pavement at its most poignant and vulnerable, but without losing any of its edge or humor. When Malkmus exhorts, “Come join us in a prayer / We’ll be waiting, waiting there / Everything’s ending here,” he’s reaching out in the only way Pavement knows how to, through a rallying cry that’s delivered in a world-weary whisper. It’s a touching moment that makes you realize after the fact that a palpable sentimentality was always the flipside of smirky irony for Pavement.