by Matt Meade
4. Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
It has been a lifelong goal of mine to become a Pavement fan. I love the bands who are Pavement’s predecessors; bands like The Fall and Sonic Youth; bands not concerned with hitting the Billboard charts, or squishing their ideas into some radio friendly template. And I love a lot of the bands who took after them; Les Savy Fav, Broken Social Scene, and Animal Collective, (stay tuned my upcoming article about Merriweather Post Pavilion for my complicated relationship with Animal Collective). And all the coolest people are Pavement fans; Built to Spill, Beck, Lester Bangs’ nephew Lance, that friend of a friend with a pompadour who is a professional photographer and throws great dinner parties.
But I could never quite get it. I have often found myself, upon meeting a fellow pop music-phile, confounded by this hangup I have for this band. After swapping music geek references for a while, our enthusiasm giddy and bubbling as we agree on the superiority of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, The Roots, and MC5, and try one up each other with crazy stories we’ve heard about artists like Van Morrison and Nina Simone, our conversation inevitably finds its way to Pavement. I am always left scratching my head while my new, cool friend, who I am trying to impress, tries to explain what it is I should like about Pavement.
I know they were unsentimental on purpose, but I need some raison d’etre for the music they made. They seemed so unsentimental that the music became disingenuous. “You don’t HAVE to be here fellas,” I wanted to say. “If you are too cool to be here, you can leave and I will go back to listening to Jay-Z and Elliot Smith,” I imagined myself telling them. “It’s no big deal, guys. Really.”
I would often find myself getting frustrated because I could not hear what others heard in the band. After all, “Conduit for Sale,” and, “No Life Singed Her,” are bad songs. Don’t believe me? Go back and try to listen to them now. You started reading this article thinking that I am wrong about Pavement and you are forming your arguments in your head. But, before you do that, I really want you to go ahead and listen to those songs and come back and tell me what you think of them. I can wait. I know you have this record. You’re cool, after all. You are one of the cool people who like Pavement. You are one of the people who I want to be like.
You are listening to them now aren’t you? You are seeing it now aren’t you? These songs don’t have the vigor of a punk song, nor the melody of a pop song, nor the lyrics of a folk song. They are little experimental, hybrid mutations, but they are failures. You are starting to wonder what you saw in this band all along, aren’t you?
And the problem is Pavement. Were these bad songs played by bands who appeared to give a shit about the music they were making, it wouldn’t matter that the songs are a little tossed off and weak. My complaint with Malkmus and the boys has always been that they are so smug and sarcastic that it discredits anything they do when the music they make comes close to being real. Sure, there is artifice to any artist. Every musician takes on some kind of persona. You could say that there are layers and layers of bullshit to The Band. They are Canadians singing southern blues-rock tunes. Muddy Waters, like any blues artist, makes you work because he is so entrenched in the traditions of the blues form (12 bar blues songs all utilizing the classic turnaround, and the “my woman left me,” or “Hell-fire” subject matter). Vampire Weekend, The Talking Heads, even Pink Floyd, make ridiculous songs about wacky concepts, but if I walked around complaining about the artifice of Animals, I would miss out on some pretty gorgeous tunes, and the experiences associated with those songs. I know that.
But the artists who I love the most, the artists who pull me back in time and time again, are the artists who risk something. They are the artists who do something or say something weird, or strange, or personal. Artists who are good at what they do, but then take that talent and do something with it no one expected. Pavement always felt to me like they were acting like risk takers, but that they never wanted to take any real risks. They seemed to have created this insular little club and they let the “I’m too cool for you” miasma take over.
There are a lot of ways they could have really made a leap and hoped that there would be people on the other side of the chasm when they landed. For example, they could have tried more cohesive lyrics. There is almost a random Mad Libs quality to their lyrics and album titles. Brighten the Corners? Why not Sharpen the Circles? “Spit on a Stranger?” Why not “Insult a Statue?” And why are their lyrics this way? I suspect that it is easier to say nothing, because then you don’t risk being contradicted, or rejected. Because, for all I know these songs, are all about the same thing.
But it didn’t have to be the lyrics. Sometimes non-nonsensical lyrics are more interesting than straightforward ones. Just ask Ghostface Killah. Instead, The Pavements could have made their sound more dynamic and nuanced, and less layered and caked on (all the instruments basically doing similar things in the same key). But that would have required that they make decisions and choices about the arrangements. And arrangements are so uncool, man. Like, ya know? It would have required that they actually honed their instruments and their craft. But , dude, practice is like, hard. Ya see?
There are a lot of ways they could have taken an artistic risk. But without some gesture on their part, there is something that is so insipid about them. That’s what gets me really upset. We are all paying attention to you, The Pavement. You got us. All eyes are on you. What are you gonna do with it? What are you gonna say? Nothing? Really?
I will admit this to you, though. One day I heard, almost accidentally, “Range Life” on some mix CD someone gave me. I am not sure if it was the context, or the circumstances surrounding my listening to the CD, but I had this deep emotional reaction to the tune. It’s a song I’ve heard about a million times but all of a sudden it felt like Stephen Malkmus was shaking his floppy, 90s hair out of his eyes and singing right to me. I had an emotional reaction to the song on a far deeper level than made possible by even certain sad love songs that are designed for me (or anyone else) to identify with. The tune succeeded in doing what the rest of Pavement’s catalog failed to do. It hit me on a gut level.
Something about hearing “Range Life,” this one time hit me just the right way. It’s not what he is singing about that gets me (cuz we all know his lyrics are about nothing but bull shit. Can we all just come out and admit that right now?). I guess that I finally stopped looking for something in the lyrics and I started believing in the song. ”Range Life” started to remind me, for a second, of “Venus in Furs.” It was so atmospheric and organic. And just like Velvet Underground made it seem as though they were recording their tunes in between a séance, and an opium fueled orgy, it sounded like “Range Life” was recorded in between smoking a bunch of bad weed, and hanging out at a bowling alley. “Maybe,” I thought to myself, “I was just looking for some pristine Big Star-esque pop out of Malkmus and the boys but I should have let them explain it for themselves. I should have met them on their own terms.” Once that song clicked for me I thought I was going to tumble into some long-term Pavement love affair, understanding all the tunes anew. It never happened. I tried approaching their records with no expectations and I found very little in the way of transcendence. I found little more than what seemed to be a prank played by kids who have yet to drop out of college completely.
Now, this admission about my brief love affair with “Range Life,” doesn’t do anything to support your argument that Slanted and Enchanted is a good record, because “Range Life” is off of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. However, it does serve as evidence that I am willing to listen, willing to hear what this band is trying to offer. And it proves that they are capable of making music that is emotionally resonant and powerful, if they would just put their mind to it. As a matter of fact, this is what gets me really mad at them. It’s the emotional blue balls I get from finally understanding what a song like “Range Life” has to offer, only to find that it’s not a harbinger of things to come, but the totality of what the band has to offer.
There is no mission. No message. No desperate need. Exile in Guville, The Blueprint, Rum, Sodomy, & The Lash, these records burned from the souls of their creators. These records needed to come out. Pavement just made music cuz they could. They had the instruments lying around and they wanted to see if they could bend and break them into a record. The whole thing seems like it was based on a gag. “Do you wanna see if we can make a record by ripping off The Fall?” And they did (For serious. Listen to “Two States,” and then anything off The Marshall Suite if you don’t believe me.)
They never scraped together the violence of a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain, or the sheer, unglued abandon of Captain Beefheart. They never developed the musical, emotional, or lyrical vocabulary necessary to make the kinds of records Nirvana, or R.E.M. were making at around the same time. Their greatest success seems to be in becoming an unauthorized franchise for The Fall, selling something to American audiences that Mark E. Smith had been perfecting for London audiences for more than two decades already. Sure Malkmus and the boys looked cool doing it, but they don’t mean anything to anyone. It just feels like a waste.
So I guess I’ll never love Pavement. I guess I’ll never be cool. I am fine with that. Leave me with my Coldplay and my Adele. Leave me with my U2 and my Kings of Leon. I’ll be uncool and feel something. You should try it sometime.
Listen to this Instead: Anything by Dinosaur Jr, or Slint. Oh god… If only Pavement was Slint.
Song I would listen to if you held a gun to my head: “Here”*
*Let me tip everything I just said on its head for a second because there is something about this song that hits me right in the spine. It contains lyrics like: “Come join us in a prayer / We’ll be waiting, waiting where / Everything’s ending here.” And this song, not unlike “We Dance,” and the aforementioned “Range Life,” feel like proof that they could make this kind of music, if they felt like it.
But we don’t feel like it, so fuck you square… they seem to be saying.
These few songs suggest the possibility that maybe all the lyrics have been misinterpreted as ironic. And maybe, just maybe they were not too cool all along. Maybe just like Weezer’s ironic love of Cheap Trick (a love that wasn’t ironic at all), and Gordon Ganno’s tongue in cheek references to Jesus, (references that were not tongue in cheek at all), maybe Pavement’s coolly tossed off tunes and their appearance of apathy was just a desperate grasp for attention, for love, for acceptance. And maybe that’s what Pavement, who played “Here” as the final encore in their final, farewell show, was doing all along. Trying to fill their empty suburban hearts with love. Our love. Maybe they are leaping across a chasm, hoping to be caught when they reach the other side. Maybe that desperation is what I see in their music. Maybe I see myself in them and that is why I resent them so much. Maybe that is why they disgust and frustrate me.
Or maybe they are just pretension, hipster assholes, unwilling to feel, or share a shred of human emotion.
Fuck you Pavement. I’ll never get to the bottom of you.