Pavement’s Greatest Hits

The unthinkable has happened.

Also in Slate, Zach Baron discusses the Pavement reunion and the end of baby boomer cultural hegemony. 

Stephen Malkmus

I come in peace to chat about Quarantine the Past  (Matador Records), a new Pavement compilation with an ultra-fine title. Dropped on the occasion of a reunion tour, the name rings with the personality of what was “the finest rock band of the 90s,” according to the certified accounting of Robert Christgau. Recontextualized as an imperative, the phrase sparks from a lyric on this record’s first track, “Gold Soundz,” a song like a chunk of quartz—jagged angles, splashy jangles, jazzy spangles in the yellow sun. It is a self-doubt song making the best of it as tunefully as its own title arrogantly promises.

“You’re empty and I’m empty, and you can never quarantine the past,” is the lyric. The quick, foxy tail of the Q slides into a verb carrying the squawk of official alarm. The phrase is a mouthful for a marketing department to choke on. It is syncopated to measure the gravity of nostalgia and the pull against it, indicative of a lyrical voice that is often of several minds about any number of things, settling on ambiguity as a controlling idea and ambivalence as a point of view, cultivating a double-negative capability.

True to form, Pavement has directed the art of Quarantine the Past with an eye toward grotty collages and text scratched as if in the back of a trigonometry textbook. Here we have a hellfire prog-rock dragon warring, perhaps, with a phalanx of men hoisting a silhouetted flag—appropriate to a group that did notable work in the specialty subgenre of the throwaway anthem. No lyrics, no liner notes. The booklet credits the producers but not the players, which is in line with Pavement’s cultivated air of obscurity—a standoffishness (and stepoffishness) entwined with its sense of itself as on one level a practical joke. At this writing,  the band’s bio on Matador’s Web site  pretty much just shuffles a few Pavement-appropriate names and dates into the text of  the REM entry  on the All Music Guide: “Pavement decided to return to being a rock band with 2006’s Monster. … [T]he album won praise from a number of old-school critics who had been reluctant to praise the band, since they didn’t ‘rock’ in conventional terms.” You don’t need Freud to tell you about the hostility of pranksters.

The record has 23 songs, recorded between the winter side of 1989 and 1999’s end of the party. Sequenced asynchrously, perhaps in the belief that the concepts of artistic progress and linear time are a touch overrated, it is engineered such that apprentice work and mature numbers flow together and the mood of the whole swings smoothly. It would be churlish to carp that Pavement has erred in excluding “Texas Never Whispers”—and churlishness is among the band’s modes—and the carper would have to concede that it was right to include “Debris Slide.” That number is ace punk-pop, its title phrase sung as if a debris slide involved ripping a wave or nailing a skateboard trick, but anyway, let’s not be churlish. Quarantine the Past rates as “the best of Pavement,” as a subtitle printed on a sticker says. It looks pretty good next to, and even between, the two volumes of the Eagles’  Greatest Hits.

The concept of Pavement’s Greatest Hits is unthinkable, it having had only  one fractional hit  in “Cut Your Hair” in 1994, when, according to the claims of hype, Pavement was the “smart Nirvana” and the “next Nirvana.” The band showed an obstinate disinterest in living up to those claims, and the obstinacy was part of the act. This pose—something like the “calculated surliness” Ralph Ellison heard in John Coltrane—partly involved writing songs about songs. “And we’re coming to the chorus now,” says the last line of the first verse of “Gold Soundz.” Clever. Too clever? What do you have against cleverness? “In the best of songs,” writes the critic and Dylanologist Christopher Ricks, “there is always something about what it is to write a song without in any way doing away with the fact that it is about things other than the song.”

To trip the nostalgia trap: 1994 was a year for “Loser” and “Gin & Juice” and  Parklife  and “Cornflake Girl,” the year of Pearl Jam vs. Ticketmaster and Kurt Cobain with a shotgun. We were up against the Dave Matthews Band, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Korn. On the strength of “Cut Your Hair,” a song about girls and boys and artists and repertoire, Pavement had its broadest brush with the mainstream,  going on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, five young men in no hurry.

On the drums, a Virginia gentleman named Steve West raps out martial rhythms and taps sequins from his cymbals. (West is a subject of “Westie Can Drum,” a band-about-a-band B-side about keeping time in the fourth dimension.) The grinning lad on tambourine is Bob Nastanovich. Originally hired to back up and baby-sit Pavement’s first drummer, Nastanovich contributes color by way of percussion and charm by way of extroversion, bouncing like a mascot and hooting in falsetto. He elsewhere supplies bloops of Moog, Atari-type explosive crashes, backup cackles, stage patter, more cowbell, so on. The bassist, Mark Ibold, has a natural gait suiting the band’s Western streak—easy trots, brash gallops, abrupt giddy-ups.

The group’s founders play guitar. One is Scott Kannberg, identified as Spiral Stairs in the riddling packaging of the band’s earliest recording, as befits a rhythm guitarist given to swirls and scales of drone. The other is Stephen Malkmus, or S.M., who spends much of the Tonight clip addressing “Cut Your Hair” to his own bangs—a familiar pose in the days before he learned to be less shy with his vulnerability and more direct about working his looks. He emits some auk-like calls to turn the audience off, shreds his solo diligently, and is almost even believable when sneering the line “I really don’t care,” the wannabe slacker. It is unclear whether the final crash of noise in this performance really results from Jay Leno’s handshake accidentally knocking Malkmus’s guitar from its strap. It is altogether plausible that this is a practical joke. Again, this is a band that convinced the author of a fanzine-ish authorized biography that “the National Word Association of America”—an organization with no proven existence outside of those quotation marks—officially deemed pavement the 20th-most pleasant word in the English language. In any case, as an advertisement for art noise, the crash ranks with Kim Gordon’s  go-go dancing.

Who do you suppose would win a rap battle between Alex Ross and  S/FJ? I ask because Ross once  wrote a sturdy piece on Pavement  that, though eloquent in recognizing that the band “protects the core of its mystery,” still enhances that mystery—enriches a shroud, say—in its reading of Pavement lyrics. Ross takes the stands that they’re pure nonsense—meaningful nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless—which is impure nonsense. The slipstream-of-consciousness verbal arrangements include all sorts of mean quips, rough drafts of riddles, automatic puns, and novelistic details insistent on making throwaway lines seem indisposable, and the sensibility generally coheres in a recognizable literary way. Sometimes we get hard-core koans, with the refrain of “Range Life,” making sense at least six ways: “If I could settle down, then I would settle down.”

The best showcase for this lyrical gift—this Dada da-da-dum—might be the fourth track on Quarantine the Past, “Stereo,” a song busy with bubbling bass, chatting guitars, Plan-9-from-outer-space alien noises, and hooks that parody themselves, tweaking before giving way to murderous guitar squalls. It is another song about song, a rock song like a rap song about holding the mic—”Hey! Listen to me! I’m on the stereo!”—but sort of done as a score for Saturday daytime television. Malkmus sings the line “pigs they tend to wiggle when they walk” like bouncing a ball across syllables at the bottom of a cartoon; a taunting play on words about checking “signatures” conflates the band’s musical staff with its legal one; we head into each chorus with a dry “Hi-ho, Silver!”, alone on the range. The song “rocks” very hard in conventional terms, its only disappointment being its indifference to ending neatly. Pavement can be wary that way, suspicious of big finishes, tidy endings, grand finales, and fancy paraphs. Maybe they deserve an A-minus for effort for that reason, the half-grade docked on account of their strongly mixed feelings about the duty to leave us wanting more.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.