As mentioned before, the idea of this lazy new series was inspired by the fact that I was struggling for inspiration for new ideas for 2019. Twenty years ago, we were on the cusp of a new millennium. It’s a period which already feels like a lifetime ago but, when you turn to the music, seems to have been just the day before yesterday. This new series celebrates those circumstances by delving into the archives to re-post a review from the period, to be followed by some thoughts of my own a full two decades on.
#2 : TERROR TWILIGHT by PAVEMENT (NME, 3 June 1999 – John Robinson)
They have the truth for you every time, Pavement. Have the same slouch, the same superbly articulate shrug, sure, but it’s the truth, the open-palmed, idly-tossed jewel in the esoteric fog that gets you. When they played in London last month, the group chiefly performed songs from this LP, and this is why. The songs may change. The essential thinking behind them doesn’t.
Stephen Malkmus’ truth walks, hands in pockets, through ‘Terror Twilight’ as it has through the greatest Pavement records, and pulls up to ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ and ‘Wowee Zowee!’ standing tall. He drawls it like he means it, throughout. “Architecture students are like virgins with an itch they cannot scratch”, he muses on ‘The Hexx’. “Never build a building till you’re 50/What kind of life is that?” Well, y’know. Exactly.
It’s this kind of thing that keeps Pavement completely essential. No radical overhauls have been made: their titles oblique, their instrumentation out there, their singer so lackadaisical about his lyric composition (most of the vocals on the record weren’t put on until the mixing stage). The beauty on ‘Terror Twilight’ is more striking because it sounds like it’s been stumbled on while walking out to buy coffee, trainers or tofu.
All of which might seem a bit unlikely. Pre-publicity for the album in America had hinted that this was the band’s third crack at recording their fifth studio album, that if it didn’t work, they’d have considered packing it in, which didn’t sound like a promising prologue to what has turned out to be a wily but consistent album. Instead this is Another Very Good Pavement Album, where the only real surprise – and though fantastic, filled with giddying disorientation it is not – is that its producer is Nigel Godrich, whose technique chiefly consists of weaving a coherent production narrative out of seemingly accidental noise. Pavement were doing that, y’know, anyway.
But hey. Or, as Malkmus shrugs on ‘Major Leagues’, “Relationships, hey, hey, hey…”. The important tone he cuts on ‘Terror Twilight’ is an early-30s equanimity with life’s vicissitudes, fallen off it a few times, but still riding a skateboard, amused and never frightened. He’s been “tired of the best years of my life”. Knows that, “Time is a one-way track/I’m never going back”. He could just be freestyling, and Pavement songs might not be saddled with the most orthodox of songwriting techniques, but off the Malkmus cuff is copious wisdom thrown.
The group crackles with the same kind of insight and intelligence. Though there are songs on here (‘Major Leagues’, ‘Ann Don’t Cry’) which rely on a slightly formulaic countrified mode Pavement have made their own, the odd places the group go musically (to The Groundhogs’ ‘Split’ LP on ‘Platform Blues’, Pink Floyd on ‘The Hexx’, The Jackson 5 on latest single ‘…And Carrot Rope’) and their slack, unhurried handling of the whole procedure make it sound completely ingenuous. They’ve got a quality you can’t buy, and that’s personality.
Irish folk tales scare the shit out of you. You’ve not looked hard at a foetus in a jar. Don’t drink from the tainted flute. This is Pavement’s truth: it’s probably yours too.
First up, it’s quite frightening to realise it’s now been 20 years since Pavement split up, with their last ever gig being in London in November 1999, albeit there was a touring reunion 10 years later. It’s been fairly well-documented that the recording of Terror Twilight and the subsequent world tour to promote it was very much the catalyst for the break-up.
It’s an album that I found very underwhelming at the time of release. It didn’t sound or feel like any other Pavement record which I put down to the songs being universally those of Stephen Malkmus with Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) being left out on the fringes of things, so it was perhaps more akin to a solo project than a genuine band effort. I was expecting and hoping for more stuff that sounded like Stereo or Shady Lane and that the album would enable Pavement to somehow re-ignite indie guitar-pop after a prolonged spell in the doldrums after Britpop had imploded in such spectacular fashion. Instead, I found myself thinking it was akin in places to easy-paced country rock, (Major Leagues is a Tom Petty song in waiting), and, even worse, there were numerous tracks in which it was hard to discern any differences, wholly lacking hooks and riffs, which sounded like an art school project gone wrong.
In short, my views and thoughts couldn’t be further away from Mr Robinson at the NME.
A year or so later, some of it actually made sense when the next Radiohead album, Kid A, was released. It and Terror Twilight shared a producer in Nigel Godrich and it does now seem that much of the experimentation in sounds he deployed with Pavement would be utilised on his next project with Thom Yorke & co…..and it’s worth remembering that Kid A caused a lot of head-scratching at the time of its release.
A few weeks back, I listened again in full to Terror Twilight for the first time in a very long while….well at least I tried to. If anything, it is even more disappointing to listen to than when it first came out, failing to hold my attention span much and the FF button was utilised a fair bit, often in mid-song and then later to skip certain tracks altogether. There is some merit in album opener Spit on a Stranger while the closer, Carrot Rope, is one that I’d probably find room for if I was to compose an ICA of my own (Tim Badger pulled together a superb ICA in September 2015 – click here for a reminder. Interesting that he didn’t include anything from the farewell album).
mp3 : Pavement – Carrot Rope
As ever, feel free to argue otherwise.
Oh and if anyone feels like contributing a guest posting for this 20 years look back series, then feel free to drop me a line. All contributions are welcome and I never turn anything down (unless you happen to be suggesting something that’s already in the can!).