Slanted and Enchanted
Matador – 1992
Touted as a masterpiece upon its 1992 release, Pavement’s debut album would become an indie rock archetype. It has lost none of its power, and still sounds just as refreshing today as it did thirty years ago.
In setting out to review each of Pavement’s five albums for this month-long exploration of the band’s career, Slanted and Enchanted seemed the most daunting to write about, which meant that I put it off until the end; one of my colleagues has graciously volunteered a forthcoming piece on the band’s swan song, 1999’s Terror Twilight. This difficulty in approaching Slanted and Enchanted can be ascribed to two factors of equal importance: first, S&E was the only Pavement album that I didn’t experience in something approaching “real time”; second, this is undoubtedly their record with the biggest legacy.
The first factor means that I don’t really have much of a personal story with Slanted, other than it just being another album that I arrived to late, but love nonetheless. It was the third Pavement album that I owned, purchased with graduation cash on the day after I finished high school (on the same day that I also bought Doolittle). I had already been initiated by Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and had my fandom confirmed with Brighten the Corners. Put simply, there are plenty of people with far more compelling S&E stories than mine.
In fact, the story of Slanted and Enchanted itself is the stuff of dreams for anyone who has ever aspired to make music. After graduating from the University of Virginia, Stephen Malkmus and his friends, David Berman and Bob Nastanovich, move to New Jersey, each taking jobs a security guards at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Though the trio makes a number of experimental, lo-fi recordings as Silver Jews, Malkmus has been writing a cache of virtually-perfect pop songs on the side. Over an extended winter break in 1990-91, he returns home to Stockton, California and records these songs with his childhood friend, Scott Kannberg, in the garage studio of a local punk/hippie drummer named Gary Young.
Malkmus returns to New Jersey, while back home, Kannberg obsesses over the sequencing. He sends out early copies of the songs on cassette, capitalizing on the buzz that had been generated by the pair’s earlier, more experimental recordings. Record labels begin to court the group, who ultimately sign with the New York imprint, Matador. While months pass before the final version of the album is released, advance copies find their way to prominent critics, several of whom hail the record as an instant classic. When it finally comes out, Malkmus, Kannberg, Young, Nastanovich, and new bassist Mark Ibold are the most talked-about new band in America, and they embark on a global tour that solidifies their position as indie darlings.
Of course, absolutely none of this context is necessary to appreciating Slanted and Enchanted. The same thing that made this album resonate thirty years ago is still there today. Beneath the rough edges provided by Gary Young’s studio, the oft-cited “loose” performances, and the willful obscurity of Malkmus’ lyrics, these are simply immaculate songs. Sure, there are a few points in which the deadpan vocals, buzz saw guitars, and lo-fi production aesthetic may repel the uninitiated, but any barrier to entry implied by Slanted‘s thorny exterior will most assuredly melt away with minimal effort, whether in 1992, 1997 (when I first heard it), or 2022.
The real wonder is that those rough edges are so easily sanded down, considering the recordings that Pavement had released in the two years prior to the arrival of Slanted and Enchanted. Give or take a “Box Elder’ – and perhaps a “Debris Slide” – the trio of early Pavement EPs were practically confrontational in their embrace of dissonance and abstraction. The musical and emotional clarity of S&E tracks like “Here” or “Zurich Is Stained” was arresting regardless of context, but especially so for a band that had jokingly titled a largely-caustic EP Perfect Sound Forever just a year earlier.
That emotional resonance – despite the lyrical elusiveness – was undoubtedly amplified by Slanted‘s no-frills production. Only the aforementioned “Here” – which was recorded in Brooklyn a few weeks prior to the rest of the album – even featured the use of reverb. As such, there’s an added intimacy to these songs, whether compact and ponderous (ala “Zurich”), thrashing (“No Life Singed Her,” “Conduit For Sale!”), or somewhere in-between (most everything else).
This potent combination of hooks, emotional affectability, lyrical elusiveness, and sonic intimacy made for something almost unprecedented in contemporary rock music. Those who fell for Slanted and Enchanted fell hard. Those who couldn’t (or refused to) cut through the fuzz dismissed the group as merely a product of hype. Others still fashioned a short-sighted narrative of Pavement being little more than simple knock-offs of The Fall – a characterization based more on the group’s visual aesthetic than their actual music (outside of a few tracks).
To those who did get it, Pavement became an archetype. In fact, the language of post-Nirvana underground rock largely came to center upon verbal descriptors that Pavement had inadvertently brought into vogue: indie, lo-fi, slacker. Based largely on their affiliation with the band, Matador Records itself became a sought after destination for groups looking to comfortably exist on the periphery of the mainstream.
In time, I became one of those disciples. Like Stephen Malkmus, I wore collared shirts that were too small and pants that were too big for my then-lanky frame. I experimented with tuning my guitar in weird ways that frustrated my bandmates. I balanced my love of “outsider” music with my continued interest in sports, to the detriment of my standing in multiple social circles. To me, this was the biggest gift of Pavement. Yeah, Nirvana had told us to come as we were, but despite loving their music, in them I saw something that was still too unapproachable, too druggy, too cool. In Pavement, I simply saw myself.