Quarantining the Past is a new on-going column at Prefix where we’ll discuss albums from the ’90s. Records that were important to the decade, albums we overlooked, albums by important bands that don’t get talked about enough, albums that get better with age and those that time has been unkind to — we’ll talk about them all, with a new album featured every week. Got an album from the ’90s you want highlighted? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share your thoughts on the featured album each week.
Up this week: Pavement’s Terror Twilight
You really can’t talk about Pavement albums in comparisons — this is the best album/that is the worst album, most accessible/least accessible, so on and so forth — because they sort of have nothing to do with each other. There’s common elements across their discography: Stephen Malkmus’s quirks and guitar tones, the band’s carefree (or careless) sway, their smirking lyrics and oddball shifts. But those elements create five distinctly different albums, separate islands in a curious and hard to define rock archipelago.
Despite its humble sound, it’s the last album, 1999’s Terror Twilight that seems to be the most divisive. Not that there’s a whole lot of bile thrown at it, but there was (and is) a fair amount of shrugging over the album. It’s fine, goes the line, but it’s not classic like Slanted & Enchanted or Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain were. It’s not the mad-genius scattering of sound Wowee Zowee was. It lacks, mostly, the powerful rock heft of Brighten the Corners. Terror Twilight became notable more for being last than for being great.
Since I’ve self-imposed the inability to make comparisons, I won’t say that Terror Twilight is the most complex Pavement album, but I will say that its complexities have a subtlety to them not seen in the other records. It is, in hindsight, many different albums at once. First and foremost it’s an excellent collection of songs, a cohesive and coherent bunch of rock songs that, if they get overly languid in spots, make up for that slack with an undeniable charm and tunefulness.
But for all the noise made about its straightforward (some might say boring) approach, Terror Twilight has all the sonic eccentricities of its predecessors. They aren’t sanded down by age so much as they are refined on this record. “You are a Light,” at first listen a spacey rocker, shifts into an entirely different melody in its second half as the guitars take on a new crunch. “Billie” erupts in those shouted choruses, upsetting the breezy pastoral feel they start the song on. There’s the banjo on “Folk Jam,” the harmonica (played by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) on “Platform Blues,” that watery wah-lead on “…And Carrot Rope.” I could go on, but you get the point. The band didn’t settle in or settle down on Terror Twilight, they just made a tighter weave.
Which isn’t to say they weren’t willing to fuck with us. Take that quick clatter of drums that kicks off the record, a second of chaos before they launch into “Spit on a Stranger,” the most laid-back, catchy pop tune in their arsenal. There’s that electronic beat patched onto the end of “Major Leagues.” And even if it fits, you spend the first half of “Folk Jam” wondering if that banjo is some big joke. At this point, they knew their reputation as ironic jokesters, and there are small moments where they play with that idea, letting us know they could turn this whole thing silly anytime they want to. “Pardon my birth, I just slipped out,” Malkmus sings at one point, and you can hear that wise-ass grin in his voice.
So they’re still a group of irony-loving kooks at moments here, but by the time they got to Terror Twilight the laid-back goofball thing wasn’t working for them. Tensions were growing in the band — Malkmus, in particular, was alienated from most everyone else — and an initial attempt to record the new album themselves resulted in two weeks of wasted studio time. So the boys brought in producer Nigel Godrich, barely two years removed from his landmark production on Radiohead’s classic OK Computer, and fresh off work on Beck’s Mutations, the subdued follow-up to 1996’s Odelay. It was a timely, even trendy, move but if they were going to make this record, it had to happen. They had to become Pavement, the professional rock band. Part of this was in Godrich’s hands once he joined the project. As a big-time producer, he was clearly drawn to the rock-star arrogance and smart-guy charm of Malkmus, and Terror Twilight became in large part a focus on his voice and guitar work. Notice how there are no Spiral Stairs songs on the record. Note how high in the mix the guitars and voice are. Godrich was going to make this their great pop record, and he wanted the charismatic pop singer front and center. Under the spotlight, Malkmus shines. His wordplay is irreverent but effortless and his songs — from the sweet haze of “Major Leagues” to the grimy riffs “Cream of Gold” — are excellent. Pavement didn’t really need any sort of crossover success, but you can feel Godrich and Malkmus trying to put together the kind of rock record that will get noticed, while the rest of the band got left behind.
Thematically, the album often addresses growing up and getting older and the trials and losses inherent in that. “Major Leagues” is the bittersweet tale of running into a girl at a baby shower after many years. “Cream of Gold” repeats that ominous line, “Time is a one-way track, and I ain’t ever coming back.” In other places, the mentions of aging seemed aimed directly at the band itself, hinting at the break-up to come. In “Billie,” Malkmus admits he is “tired of the best days of [his] life,” and it doesn’t feel like a reach to connect that to the band’s soon-to-end run.
More important than thematic mentions of aging though — often undone by the more oblique lyrics on the record — is how Terror Twilight is a document of the band itself aging, the sound of something getting older. By Brighten the Corners, Pavement was too good to smirk their way through huge chunks of a record anymore. They were a formidable and exciting band, coming into their own even as they were coming apart at the seams. So if each album steps out on its own in the band’s catalog, this does so by taking itself a bit more seriously. It’s got the big-name producer, it’s got Malkmus playing his best rock-star role, and it’s got the band going for a hit single on virtually every track.
Unfortunately, what the band needed was also what did them in. The well documented end of the band came soon after the record’s release. Two years later, Malkmus returned with his first solo album, fittingly titled Stephen Malkmus. The eponymous title was a declaration. There was no more Pavement, there was only Stephen Malkmus, and if you went back to Terror Twilight you can see him separating from the band there. There’s not much sonic connection to the first solo album in Terror Twilight — in his inconsistency, Malkmus is remarkably consistent — but perhaps it was this last album that gave him confidence to strike out on his own. To get the guy that produced OK Computer to back him might have been just the thing, making Terror Twilight a bittersweet end. It’s a vital set of songs, one that doesn’t sound like an end necessarily (the A.V. Club claimed at the time that the band sounded like they had “no intention of throwing in the towel”), but it certainly set the wheels in motion. It was a typically odd Pavement record, even as it was a clear sign of them moving forward, of becoming a band that took itself as seriously as its fans did. It did so many different things at once, and in the end sounded so smooth all the way through. Pavement ended (overpriced reunions aside) and what we were left with was Terror Twilight. Twilight, you know, that time just before it gets dark. Between what already happened and what’s to come. It’s often a calm time, carrying just enough of the day’s light to comfort, even if there’s a big storm coming.