Matador – 1999
Pavement’s final record may be the least immediately-appealing entry in their catalog; and yet, on the eve of its long-awaited deluxe reissue treatment, Terror Twilight now feels like another classic album from the best American band of their time.
Terror Twilight is the last real indie rock album. Just as “alternative” briefly meant something, before being co-opted by the mainstream and turned into a mid-dial radio format in the nineties, “indie” became the buzz label for sad white boys with guitars around the turn of the current century. The early aughts saw bands like Death Cab for Cutie, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Morning Jacket, and The Shins go mainstream and feature prominently in TV shows and film.
Unlike most of their contemporaries, Pavement never quite achieved that level of mainstream appeal. They never crossed over into major motion picture ending credits fame. They didn’t attract that attention until now, as they suddenly find themselves middle-aged guys, hailed as forefathers, who probably don’t have health insurance, but are able to sell out a good-sized tour. It’s fitting in so many ways that the best American band of the nineties bowed-out, stage left, with a sly wink and a tired smile of an album at the close of the decade.
I didn’t grow up a Pavement fan. Somehow I missed them completely growing up, as my tastes jumped from oldies radio, to “alternative” rock radio, to only listening to the embarrassing wealth of great late-nineties Pacific Northwest bands. Pavement didn’t really fit into any of those categories. They got almost no radio play and were not a proper Portland band, despite their leader having moved there late in their career.
In 2007, my brother-in-law, a former radio DJ and late-eighties new wave aficionado, passed on to me Rob Sheffield’s Love Is a Mixtape, which details the author and his wife’s love, and her death, through the lens of the music they listened to together. Pavement features heavily in the narrative, and is even referred to as “their band.” At that time, I looked up the scant Pavement videos on embryonic YouTube and I found a copy of Slanted and Enchanted at Bookman’s Entertainment Exchange in Flagstaff. I listened to the record sporadically in college, but it didn’t ingratiate itself to me at that time.
A couple of years later, Matt Ryan, not yet of Strange Currencies fame, entrusted me with his very own original copy of Brighten the Corners. That quickly became my go-to Pavement record. It was catchy, jangly, dissonant, and loose. Although I soon acquired the rest of Pavement’s catalog (thanks in no small part to Matt, who I also inherited Wowee Zowee from), whenever I got the Pavement itch in my twenties, Brighten the Corners scratched it just fine. But now in my early-forties, Terror Twilight is what I consistently reach for over other Pavement records, and over anything else from the nineties. Here’s why:
I imagine that the expectations for Terror Twilight were high. Pavement’s previous record was as close to radio-ready as they’d ever get. They had been given airtime on MTV and Letterman, and much bigger bands were singing their praises (Radiohead, Beck) or, even better, publicly hating on them (Smashing Pumpkins). Heaping expectations even higher, Nigel Godrich – fresh off of producing this little project called OK Computer – was producing the band’s fifth record. With Godrich’s reputation for directing and even dominating recording sessions, fans must have been excited for a Pavement-meets-Radiohead album of haunting intertwining minor key compositions. They (and Godrich) underestimated the character of these slacker Picassos.
Reportedly, the band and Godrich immediately clashed in the studio. Even though, legend goes, he worked with Stephen Malkmus almost exclusively – not even bothering to learn other band members’ names – he and Steve didn’t get on well, and didn’t see eye-to-eye on the production methods, sequencing, studio selection, who should drum, and even the number of takes required to get a satisfactory master track. Years later, both Malkmus and Godrich speak disparagingly about the difficult experience of making Terror Twilight, referring to it respectively as a “real classic rock $100,000 overproduced record” and “a stoner rock album.”
But objectively, Terror Twilight benefits from Nigel Godrich’s production. The songs are tighter without choking the looseness that always set Pavement apart from the arena rock preening of its contemporaries. There are no moments where the production feels heavy-handed, nor where the producer’s will overpowers the band’s voice. On Terror Twilight, Pavement is simply a better band.
“The Hexx” is the closest the album ever comes to sounding like a Radiohead record. More than any other track, this may have been what fans anticipated coming from a Pavement/Godrich collaboration, and it does not disappoint. It’s dark and lonely, winding, but never disjointed. But Pavement is incapable of lingering on a single sound, and even that song finds its way into a brief bluesy solo (I am not joking), before descending into a heavy spiral, à la “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The album is a Whitman sampler of sounds and styles, but it somehow achieves a continuity of jangly guitars and half-spoken delivery.
Never was Pavement more tuneful. Earlier albums are full of charming, non-committal melodies, where Malkmus slides or bumps into notes impulsively, or even seemingly accidentally. By contrast, the melodies on Terror Twilight are confident as those found on Beatles records. Even the harmonies and backup parts are carefully placed. These aren’t kids just screwing around in the garage between foosball tournaments anymore. These songs are the work of a mature, road-tempered unit of a band. More than any other Pavement record, Terror Twilight is the product of actual work, not just accidental genius or inborn talent.
The songs often turn on a dime, piling hook over hook and employing more and better melodies in compact, short packages. Is “Carrot Rope” a vaudeville dance number, or a Partridge Family homage, or the band’s exit music? As it turns out, it’s all those things in less than four minutes. I’ve read review after review where the authors criticize “Billie” for its abruptly changing chorus. Those people have probably never heard a Kinks album. The kind of band that would have given it a conventionally pretty chorus, or turned it into an arena ballad, is not what Pavement ever aspired to be. “Billie” is the rude aunt who you love because she says the things that make the polite relatives choke on their dinner rolls.
Like many bands’ last albums, Terror Twilight is, in a lot of ways, really the principal songwriter’s first solo foray. Indeed, before attempting to record the songs as a band, Malkmus had been playing them in solo shows. On Terror Twilight, for the first time, the lyrics seem carefully considered, not spontaneous or quickly tossed-off. On their final album, Malkmus’ lyrics can be downright revelatory in a way that no Pavement songs approached before. “My heart is not a wide open thing,” he obfuscates in the same song wherein he admits “the damage has been done / I am not having fun anymore” and “we got rooms to live, room to live in / room to give, but no room to give in.” This is emotionally bare in a way that Pavement never was before.
And that’s what separates great art from good art: emotional resonance. Terror Twilight has it in spades. The lead track, “Spit on a Stranger,” is actually about something, built around one cohesive thesis, which is a rarity among Pavement’s often attention-deficit songs. “I’ve been thinking long and hard about the things you said to me like a bitter stranger / And now I see the long and the short the middle and what’s in between”: Malkmus could not have written that for an earlier album. The songwriter on Terror Twilight progressed into a more mature and better one than the person who made Brighten the Corners.
Being a smart-ass slacker is fun in your early twenties, but we’ve all gotta grow up someday. And our best friends remain the ones who mature when we do, who we can discuss wives and kids and balding with. No one invites the guys from Whitesnake to dinner parties. Let’s talk about something real now that we’re adults. “You kiss like a rock / but you know I need it anyway”: find me a more depressing and succinct expression of co-dependency anywhere and I will eat my liner notes.
Terror Twilight does have its flaws. “Platform Blues” seems to be the wrong song wedged between “Major Leagues” and “Ann Don’t Cry.” It veers too close to parody, of course intentionally, but still, it feels weaker than its bookends. Maybe debuting the album with it – as Godrich intended, and as one disc of the forthcoming reissue is rumored to do – will place it in a better context, but I am skeptical that it will make it a better song. Similarly, “Speak, See, Remember,” another lax tempo bluesy jam, seems to be another step backward from the material on the rest of the record, almost as though Pavement were unwilling to make an album that was just too accessible for the average ears. It does contain the brilliant chorus refrain of “God loves you, but what could he do?”
Terror Twilight isn’t as hooky, perhaps, as moments on earlier Pavement albums, but on this, their most mature record, they give the listener something greater. The intimacy of the lyrics, the fullness of the arrangements, and the care put into the production create little worlds to live in for a few moments. Repeated listens reveal secrets, surprises, and a richness that we music fans find only in the best albums. I hope that with the upcoming deluxe re-release, there is an attendant reappraisal of Pavement’s underrated culminating album. I am thrilled that, at last, I get to be a fan waiting anxiously for a new Pavement release. That it’s a reissue of such an excellent album makes me even happier.