(music review) Pavement: Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Ed.December 10, 2008
Stuart Berman • PITCHFORK • JUMP TO MOST RECENT POST
For a band that often seemed be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough, Pavement made all the right moves– they just did them in the wrong order. With its crystalline production (courtesy of R.E.M. architect Mitch Easter and Bryce Goggin) and more refined songcraft, Pavement’s 1997 release Brighten the Cornerswas the logical follow-up to 1994’s indie hit Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But of course, that move from A to B took a tangential turn back to Z with 1995’s notoriously slapdash Wowee Zowee, an album beloved by the band’s diehard fans, but one that effectively squandered any crossover potential Crooked Rain might have built up (and which would’ve made a lot more sense as Crooked Rain‘s predecessor than successor).
Brighten the Corners‘ more focused, melodic approach could thus be heard as the sound of Pavement making amends, but it arguably came too late– by 1997, modern-rock radio was already tuning out brainy indie-rock in favour of pre-fab pop-punk and numbskull nu-metal. Pavement understood this shift all to well, which could be why Brighten the Corners sounds like their most self-aware and, by extension, honest album– when Stephen Malkmus yells, “listen to me, I’m on the stereo!” on the album’s excitable opening track, it’s with the implicit knowledge that he’d have to settle for hearing himself on his home hi-fi rather than on KROQ.
Perhaps as an attempt to reconnect with their pre-Wowee Zowee catalogue, Brighten the Corners takes various structural cues from previous Pavement albums: as on 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, the second song fades into a brief instrumental; the slowly intensifying mid-song jam on third track “Transport Is Arranged” sounds like it was grafted from Crooked Rain‘s own third track “Stop Breathin”; and Malkmus still couldn’t resist the glaring name-drop (though Crooked Rain‘s now-dated Stone Temple Pilots/Smashing Pumpkins swipes were replaced by more eternal ruminations about the peculiar oration of Geddy Lee). Consistent with this self-reflexivity, Malkmus cheekily addresses his own status as the most overanalyzed lyricist in 90s indie-rock, describing himself as “an island of such great complexity,” declaring that “if my soul has a shape, well, then it is an ellipse,” and even raging that he’s “sick of being misread by men in dashikis and their leftist weeklies.” (That said, it would take 11 years and one ridiculous Republican campaign to lend any significance to the line “there’s no women in Alaska.”)
The May 1997 Alex Ross New Yorker essay that accompanies this reissue– the fourth in Matador’s superlative series of Pavement packages– focuses on Malkmus’ lyrical gift for extracting substance out of nonsense, and the folly of trying to saddle it with literal interpretations. But on no other Pavement album do all those bon mots and non sequitirs form such a coherent picture of the band’s emotional state. Even the album title– the only one that doesn’t rely on rhymes and/or alliteration– is telling: Rather than re-ignite the band’s commercial prospects, Brighten the Corners marked the beginning of Pavement’s slow fade into the sunset, while shedding light on its principal songwriter’s future course.
Not coincidentally, both Malkmus and co-founder Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg turned 30 during the album’s recording, and both sound consumed by all the melancholy, anxiety, loaded significance, and renewed perspective that life-change carries. Malkmus’ charming, chiming “Shady Lane” reasserts the “settle down” sentiment of Crooked Rain‘s “Range Life”, and “Transport Is Arranged” seems to address the historically conflicted dynamic between relationships and life on the road (“a voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn’t teach me to love”); Kannberg’s two exemplary contributions– the Big Starry-eyed power-pop rush “Date w/ Ikea” and the smooth Stonesy funk of “Passat Dream”– equate responsibility and commitment with consumerism.
Easter and Goggin’s luminous production casts this wistfulness in an appropriately soft-focus lens; in return, the band, so scatterbrained on Wowee Zowee, turn in their most pleasingly patient performances of their career, establishing a deeper sense of space through the use of mellotrons, drum-machine breaks and synths set on “swoosh.” The dreamily drifty centerpiece track “Type Slowly” now sounds like a dry run for the sort of exploratory jams Malkmus would fashion in his post-Pavement band the Jicks (a point driven home by the extended, more volcanic live version included here), while the closing two jangle ballads, “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Fin” are two of the most affecting songs in the Pavement canon, each appended with guitar solos that compensate for Malkmus’ still-developing chops with genuinely pained expression. If “Fin” didn’t prove to be the band’s actual swan song, the track does sound like a farewell to Pavement’s wiseacre persona.
But if Brighten the Corners signaled a turn to the serious, the 32 outtakes and radio-session cuts compiled here give Pavement plenty of room to, as one B-side aptly puts it, “fuck around.” Which means indie-rock in-jokes (the Pussy Galore pastiche of “Neil Hagerty Meets Jon Spencer in a Non-Alcoholic Bar”), 1960s pop goofs (“Nigel”), cartoon themes (two stabs at “Space Ghost”), and kill-yr-idols covers of the Clean (Kannberg’s electro-fried take on “Oddity”), Echo and the Bunnymen (a Crazy Horsed interpretation of “The Killing Moon”), and heroes-turned-nemeses the Fall (a gleeful desecration of the already blasphemous “The Classical”). And in the seven-minute rough cut of stoner-rock dirge “(And Then) The Hexx” and the freewheeling biker-bar boogie of “Roll With the Wind”, you can hear Malkmus moving ever closer to adopting his future role as beardless-hippie guitar hero.
According to the liner notes, “(And Then) The Hexx” was originally intended to be Brighten the Corners‘ opener, but its sinister creep would’ve made an awkward introduction to the album’s more winsome, mellowed-out material. (The song eventually surfaced on 1999’s Terror Twilight.) However, that same rationale might also explain why the terrific “Harness Your Hopes” was demoted to B-side status, it being perhaps the most typically Pavementy Pavement song ever: the reductive, repetitive Velvet Underground riff; the rhyme-a-second wordplay (“nun is to church as the parrot is to perch”); and a line that seemingly sums up the band’s conflicted, outsider relationship with the pop world– “Show me/ A word that rhymes with Pavement.” Given that Brighten the Corners captured Malkmus trying to break free from Pavement’s established aesthetic– and given that, two years later at London’s Brixton Acadmey, he would famously sum up his feelings about the band by waving a pair of handcuffs– the word he was looking for was under his nose along: enslavement.