Looking back on the album that helped Pavement become a band again
Pavement’s path through the valley between the underground and the mainstream across the 1990s feels as much atypical as it does archetypal.
They are one of those bands whose sound is most synonymous with the idea of alternative rock from that era, which has become permanently fixed as an indie touchstone. Yet a question sits in the shadow of Brighten the Corners, an album old to begin and now a quarter century young, as to what form it takes in the greater shape of that influence.
Pavement were in a curious place as 1997 approached. They entered the ‘90s beloved by critics and college rock fans. Then they flirted with the MTV generation by way of a few perfect singles backed by casually charming videos. Following that, Lollapalooza and Wowee Zowee brought growing pains of different kinds.
“1995 was a wash,” utility player Bob Nastanovich told Magnet in early 1997. “We got pulled away from what it was like to be in a band.” Being a “warm-up band for the gods of alternative rock” had ultimately not suited them well, and the misunderstood Wowee Zowee, released in the spring before their Lollapalooza slog, functioned almost as a kind of preemptive response to that experience in its retreat from commerciality.
The following year was relatively quiet and steady for Pavement, and out of it came a relatively quiet and steady album for a group founded on fits and starts and Fall-esque irreverence. Whatever was going on with them as individuals, their music grew up fast. It took only five years to go from Slanted and Enchanted to Brighten the Corners. Hushed moments like “Here” were always in their repertoire, but Brighten’s mellow doubt is consistent. Primary songwriter Stephen Malkmus was taking a turn for the loose and languid. Guitarist/vocalist Scott Kannberg’s songwriting contributions had on occasion been unfairly marginalized in reviews, but his “Date w/ IKEA” and “Passat Dream” play a crucial role in elevating Brighten’s heart rate above resting. That both songs have brand names in their titles is curious, but was probably not a ploy for corporate sponsorship.
“It’s the most mellow and lyrically dark record we’ve done,” drummer Steve West admitted to Magnet. Their leader’s take on the album? “There’s no hits on it, not that I hear anyway,” Malkmus told the magazine. While that could be an accurate reflection of how he felt that day, when it came time to promote Brighten the Corners Malkmus’ answers from interview to interview were not entirely consistent. Faced with a barrage of inevitable Rush-related queries, on one day he might admit to genuinely enjoying some of their music, while on another he would play it off like listening to the Canadian prog legends was just a phase that all of his peers went through growing up.
VIDEO: Pavement “Stereo”
“What about the voice of Geddy Lee?/How did it get so high?” That was the question on everyone’s mind. “I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy….” They were the most straightforward lines (aside from the immortal opening image, “Pigs, they tend to wiggle when they walk”) in the most straightforward song on an otherwise oblong long player. Four albums into their career, many listeners were still determined to accurately measure the weight of Steven Malkmus’ words. Their search for meaning in the morass mildly bemused the source. “Lyrics are mostly automatic things,” Malkmus told Pulse! in early ‘97. “I used stuff that came out of nowhere and steal things that come out of somewhere.”
“People should know it’s an act,” he continued. “Some of it is really you, but a lot of it’s just assuming a voice…. It’s not a Situationist prank or anything–there’s emotion and soul and stuff in there, too–but I feel like it’s distant from me.”
Reviewers may have claimed to understand that there was nothing to understand, but that didn’t stop them from seeking out whatever grains of truth they could find. There had to be something of a theme threading between the song titles: old, slowly, blue, fin. Around the time Brighten the Corners was recorded, both Malkmus and Kannberg, the band’s founding duo, had turned 30 years old, which back then in rock and roll years was the precipice of terminal adulthood. It was time to grow up, and, contrary to what probably should have been expected from such a contrary band, Pavement obliged.
Brighten the Corners was the first LP that the band let someone else guide, with early R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter brought on board to oversee recording in his North Carolina studio with Bryce Goggin. The album has the surface feel of being more polished than its predecessors, but that is due more to the nature of the material than to any technical luster layered on the tape. Easter and Goggin were not hands-off, but they also didn’t insert themselves too much into the process. Capturing performances that split the difference between spontaneous and assured, they nudged Malkmus’ sketches into form without losing sleep worrying if they had a chart hit on their hands.
Pavement practiced what they preached when it came to the nonchalance they projected. The geographically distant members did not rehearse much before going on tour, nor did they make many demos of songs before making records. Aside from nailing the final vocals down elsewhere, they put vibe over virtuosity. “Most of the songs are all of us actually in the same room playing everything at the same time,” bass player Mark Ibold told Pulse! about Brighten the Corners. “About four are first takes.” The quintet’s approach was part indie and part jam band, and the soloing chops on songs like “Embassy Row” and “We Are Underused” gave a glimpse of Malkmus’ future solo work.
Speaking of the future, Ibold declared in the same interview that one of Brighten’s outtakes, “Harness Your Hopes,” would be a hit on their next album, after they worked out the issue of it being “just too technical.” While it did not provide that next album with a radio smash and was instead relegated to B-side status, “Harness Your Hopes” is of course now notorious for being Pavement’s top song on Spotify (due at least partly to their algorithm), with twice as many listens as even the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain singles that made them alterna-famous. Ibold was right about the song’s potential, his prediction was just off by a couple of decades.
There is a perceptible break in Pavement’s timeline, with their formative days up to the point when first drummer Gary Young left the fold on one side, and everything that came after on the other. Besides that, it isn’t crystal clear where one phase of the band ends and the next begins. At the time of Brighten the Corners, Wowee Zowee was too often regarded as a misstep, deemed to be unfocused instead of embraced for its eclectic and free-flowing fragmentation. Sales of the album, down from Crooked Rain’s breakthrough, validated that in financial terms. In one light, Wowee Zowee stands on its own as an unhinged hinge in the discography. In another, it finished a trilogy begun with Slanted and Enchanted, while Brighten is a sibling of sorts with their finale Terror Twilight, signaling the onset of the band’s latter days with changes of tempo and texture.
That’s not to say that Brighten the Corners is mired in its own maturity. You can be sure that no one has ever sang the words “I put a spy cam in a sorority” with more feeling than Steven Malkmus does in “Starlings of the Slipstream,” and such dark humor takes nothing away from how pretty, how touching, the song is. Its few earnest images resonate despite – or perhaps because of – being mixed in with abstract regional shout-outs. “Fin” does much the same for two entreaties, “No more absolutes/No more absolutes,” and “I trust you will tell me if I am making a fool of myself.” Paired at the album’s end, “Starlings of the Slipstream” and “Fin” feel almost startlingly vulnerable, an open-hearted conclusion from a group that professed not to believe in such things.
VIDEO: Pavement “Shady Lane”