For about the past 48 hours, my waking life has been dominated by internally-mounted speakers playing music by the band Pavement. This is a band that existed from 1989 to 1999, releasing five albums of music that, for most rock snobs, pretty much came to define the subgenre known as "indie rock." Their music built on the punk, post-punk, and new-wave movements of the 1980s, but introduced new elements that became widely imitated, namely: (1) dense, muddy production that at first sounds almost chaotic, despite that containing the same instruments that had been the backbone of rock and roll for decades: electric guitars, bass guitar, drums, and vocals, plus the occasional keyboard; (2) lyrics laden with self-conscious irony; and (3) most distinctively, the careless, sometimes even bored-sounding vocals of lead singer Stephen Malkmus.
Malkmus, who has released three excellent records since Pavement's breakup with a backing band called the Jicks, is a sort of indie-rock poster child, his unkempt golden hair, lanky frame, and devious grin serving as a role model-cum-sex-symbol for aspiring hipsters everywhere. The adjective that music magazines always seem to use when describing him is "impish." His lyrics and vocal style can both sometimes be infuriating. At first he seems not to give a shit about anything at all, since all his studio performances seem so tossed-off and unstudied. But the album and song titles are the first clue that this isn't the case. They sometimes consist of words and phrases that sound vaguely familiar, but out of context in rock music ("Major Leagues," "Shady Lane," "Western Homes," "Embassy Row"), but more commonly they're non-phrases, nouns and verbs and adjectives strung together in ways that are grammatically correct but utterly novel, like Noam Chomsky's famous example of a perfectly grammatical nonsense sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Some examples from Pavement titles: "Elevate Me Later," "Hit the Plane Down," "Soiled Little Filly," "Hands Off the Bayou," "Kennel District," "Zurich Is Stained," "Conduit For Sale!," "Spit On a Stranger," "Carrot Rope," "Half A Canyon," "Grave Architecture," "Serpentine Pad"... the list could go on for pages. These are the sorts of phrases where, if you Googled them in quotation marks, you would never get a single non-Pavement-related result because no one else has thought to combine these words in this particular way before.
I first became aware of the existence of Pavement sometime in the mid-nineties when they recorded a song called "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence" as a sort of tribute to R.E.M., another favorite band of mine. But it wasn't until a few years ago, spurred on by my cousin Finn's affinity for the band, that I began seeking out their music and discovering my own favorite nuggets contained within the hectic boundaries of Pavement's first two (and best) albums, Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
If there is an archetypal Pavement song, surely it is "Gold Soundz," found on CRCR. First off, it features the signature bright, jangly guitars, herky-jerky rhythm section, and perhaps as memorable a melodic hook as the band ever came up with. But you're really only going to appreciate those elements if you actually listen to the song. What's really amazing about "Gold Soundz" are the lyrics, which straddle the boundary between sincerity and irony with breathtaking aplomb:
Go back to those gold soundz
And keep my advent to your self
Because it’s nothing I don’t like
Is it a crisis or a boring change?
When it’s central, so essential,
It has a nice ring when you laugh
At the low-life opinions
And they’re coming to the chorus now...
I keep your address to myself
’Cause we need secrets
We need secrets -crets -crets -crets -crets -crets back right now
Because I never wanna make you feel
That you’re social
Never ignorant soul
Believe in what you wanna do
And do you think that is a major flaw
When they rise up in the falling rain?
And if you stay around with your knuckles ground down
The trial’s over, weapon’s found
Keep my address to myself
Because it’s secret
'Cause it’s secret -cret -cret -cret -cret -cret back right now
So drunk in the August sun
And you’re the kind of girl I like
'Cause you’re empty and I’m empty
And you can never quarantine the past
Did you remember in December
That I won’t eat you when I’m gone?
And if I go there, I won’t stay there
Because I’m sitting here too long
I’ve been sitting here too long
And I’ve been wasted
Advocating that word for the last word
Last words come up all you’ve got to waste.
Only Malkmus would dare follow the line "It has a nice ring when you laugh" with "...at the low-life opinions," or "You're the kind of girl I like" with "...because you're empty, and I'm empty." I think the narrator genuinely does like this girl, and he genuinely knows that he likes her for all the wrong reasons: because she's a shallow, arty snob just like him. It's easy to read these lines as a critique of the indie types Malkmus hangs out with, but the "I" in the song could just as easily be a younger, more jaded version of Malkmus himself. (The hipster's progression of personal growth, of course, runs not from simple to complex but from complex to simple, as s/he realizes the value of straightahead sincerity — remember Dylan: "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now.")
Another Pavement hallmark on view here is self-referentiality, self-awareness, being "meta" — whatever you want to call it. After the line about "low-life opinions," Malkmus needs another line to finish the verse before his bandmates kick in for the chorus, so what does he do? He actually sings, "And they're comin' to the chorus now"! Inspired, or idiotic? Your call, I guess, but I think the man is a goddamn genius.
And what of that chorus? "We need secrets back right now" — is this some sort of large-scale social commentary in which the "we" represents the Indie-Rock Nation, or all of America, or the whole world? Or is it just a throwaway, a backhanded slap at bullshit lit-crit theorists who would dare to make pronouncements like that? Somehow Malkmus manages to leave it open-ended.
The last thing I'm going to say about "Gold Soundz" for now is: how awesome is that title? Remember, this is 1994. White teenagers do not yet regularly pluralize their nouns on AIM by adding Z. No, Malkmus is on the cutting edge here. If I had to make a conjecture, I would say he stole it from hip-hop — after all, N.W.A. stood for "Niggaz With Attitude," and that was back in '88.
Well, all that must have been on my mind all day; maybe that's why slalom training sucked. Thanks for reading this far. Now maybe I can let go of Pavement and listen to something else.