Two Decades on, Pavement’s Terror Twilight Remains an Exquisitely Artful Snapshot of a Band Who Had Already Unraveled
Matador’s final installment of the legendary indie pioneers’ reissue campaign captures bandleader Stephen Malkmus chafing against not only his bandmates, but also the very aesthetic he’d createdMusic Reviews Pavement
Inevitably, all art movements reach an endpoint—or so we like to tell ourselves. The truth is that trends never actually die, but instead just relinquish their place at the forefront of culture, slipping out of vogue, where they continue to exert tremendous influence regardless. Let’s set aside for a moment that “Harness Your Hopes,” a b-side that appears on the new reissue of Pavement’s Spit on a Stranger EP, just went viral on TikTok. (Because, honestly, no one could’ve seen that coming and it’s a bit of a head-scratcher.) Generally speaking, we can still find the iconic indie-rock outfit’s fingerprints all over contemporary music. These days, anyone from any genre can incorporate a sense of DIY thrift into their musical identity, and it’s thanks in large part to Pavement.
Our widespread acceptance, in fact, of SoundCloud as a haven for all levels of production ability can arguably be traced back to the playful amateurism of the band’s era-defining full-length debut, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted. Something of a sleeper underground hit for Matador Records, Slanted and Enchanted secured Pavement’s status, alongside Sebadoh and Guided By Voices, as standard-bearers of the lo-fi aesthetic and counter-mainstream ethic that would define indie rock for the better part of the decade. Flying in the face of just about every popular musical trend to emerge from that period—including grunge, alternative rock, Britpop, golden-age hip-hop, death metal, nu metal, electronica, trip-hop, etc.—Pavement embodied a sense that they were too cool for whatever pop culture burped up for public consumption.
Basically, you could say that Pavement weaponized irony the way ’70s punks had weaponized nihilistic rage. And for a certain subset of ’90s youth, sneering at everything in their path gave them a way to cope. The posture wasn’t without its charms, either—after all, it helped yield so many of the clever genre subversions that we hear on landmark Pavement titles like 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and 1995’s Wowee Zowee. With those records, Pavement effectively assumed the role of musical high priests of a pervasive cynicism that one also sees reflected in the cinema of the time. Looking back, it makes perfect sense that the band struck such a deep nerve.
By the end of the decade, the landscape had shifted, as it always does. Looking back, it’s tempting to assume that Pavement’s demise was a matter of course because regime change was heavy in the air. And so one can read Terror Twilight as the work of a band who found themselves so out of place from their surroundings that they had no choice but to self-destruct. The problem with that reading, though convenient, is that it doesn’t square with what’s actually on the record, now available in its Farewell Horizontal edition, the final installment of Matador Records’ lavish Pavement reissue campaign. As fans have come to expect, the new package comes crammed with extras.
Although the extras shed little light on the album itself (except to underscore the difficulty surrounding its creation), Terror Twilight in its original form shows us very clearly that Pavement hadn’t fallen out of step with the times at all. They’d actually taken a leap forward with each successive album, and Terror Twilight shares some characteristics with then-contemporary releases by the likes of Pulp and Spoon. Of course, Terror Twilight may as well have come from a different galaxy than Slanted and Enchanted. Produced by Nigel Godrich—by then already a household name for the simultaneously dense and silky ambience he’d captured on Radiohead’s OK Computer and Beck’s Mutations—the music unsurprisingly benefits from a richer, more refined mix than Pavement were known for.
Even working with a bonafide producer in the first place was somewhat antithetical to the band’s DNA. But as ear candy, nothing else in Pavement’s catalog matches what Godrich was able to construct out of their raw material. You can spend endless listens savoring all the fine-tuned details: a high-pitched hum that persists like a soft neon glow throughout “You Are a Light”; a keyboard that falls away as if disintegrating into the emptiness of space on “Cream of Gold,” the main guitar line forming a bright arc like a layer of ozone around the earth; a delicate piano tinkle that casts glimmers of sunshine on the placid waves of “Ann Don’t Cry”; etc., etc. Throughout, every strummed chord, every plucked note, every thumped drum head rings out before tapering off in an exquisitely artful application of reverb that has become Godrich’s calling card.
And then there are the gauzy soundscapes, courtesy of Godrich, that drift between some of the songs. To be fair, his mix hardly constitutes a radical jump from the smooth, colorful sheen of 1997’s Brighten the Corners. And yes, there are moments when Terror Twilight reflects the zany spirit of Wowee Zowee: the rowdy screech of “Billie,” the imposter jazz of “Speak, See, Remember,” the outhouse banjo and chicken-chasing cadence of “Folk Jam,” the crumpled sounds that blow by like street trash in the wind as “Platform Blues” picks up its pace, a disheveled heap of song running to catch a bus in clown shoes, the sudden squalls of atonal guitar freakout that punctuate many of the songs …
The most striking difference this time, though, was the mood. If Brighten the Corners, which captures the band celebrating their quirky character, is the kind of record you put on at a party because it mirrors the messy thrill of interacting with other people, it’s easy to see why longtime fans might not have recognized the band they knew and loved in the solemn twinkle of leadoff track “Spit on a Stranger.” Mostly, the irreverence and rambunctious chemistry that pervade the previous records are supplanted by frontman/bandleader Stephen Malkmus dropping his guard and revealing his serious side for the first time. On “You Are a Light,” which is maybe best described as a sleepy, fuzzed-out love ballad, Malkmus doesn’t even try to disguise his vulnerability, his affection or—most importantly—his appreciation for straightforward musical beauty.
Had Pavement not broken up after touring for Terror Twilight wrapped, the album might have gone down in history as the band’s statement that it had successfully navigated the turn of the millennium and the change of fashion that came with it. Alas, there was one small problem: Malkmus’ steady musical growth was bound, sooner or later, to strain against the we-can’t-play-and-we-don’t-care principle on which he’d built the band. And while the apparent sophistication in his songwriting on Terror Twilight presages his solo career fronting his group The Jicks, handsome new liner notes reveal that Malkmus’ intention at the outset was actually to get his bandmates more heavily involved in giving the album its shape.
For reasons that are well-documented both in the new liners and elsewhere—and painfully, even torturously evident in the many studio outtakes of the band playing together that listeners can now hear for the first time with this edition—things didn’t turn out as Malkmus planned. With Malkmus, second guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg, hype man/keyboardist Bob Nastanovich, bassist Mark Ibold and drummer Steve West then living in five different cities, the short version of the story is that they weren’t practiced enough to tackle Malkmus’ ideas. Unbeknownst to everyone at the time, perhaps even Malkmus himself, the presciently titled Terror Twilight turned into a document of a band who had unraveled before they even reached the studio.
You can only expect so much from a group of players who were unabashedly lazy about practicing and even tuning their instruments. Still, most of the jams here will strain the patience of even the most dedicated fan. Diehards will want to hear the seeds of Kannberg’s solo career in the track “Preston School of Industry,” but the two-guitar chemistry between him and Malkmus appears to have been nonexistent by this point. Even a studio run-through of the endearingly off-kilter b-side “The Porpoise and the Hand Grenade” edges ever so close to being out of tune in an ear-pleasing way, but instead just grates. Thankfully, the original is also included, but it’s been available since ’99.
And if we’re being fair, listening to Malkmus’ clunky Moog demos is like listening to someone trying to build songs with nothing but a sledgehammer—it doesn’t sound like he was ready to get those ideas to a very graceful state on his own, either. If you’re dying to hear Malkmus speak (ironically, of course) in French, then you’re in luck, but in contrast to the bottomless sonic depth and the adult disposition of the record itself, the gag falls flat. Deep in the track listing, during an instrumental run-through of an embryonic “Spit on a Stranger,” we finally get a glimpse of some sparks between Malkmus and Kannberg. And on a surefooted rock jam titled “Be The Hook,” Malkmus shouts out his bandmates—an example, perhaps, of the unified front he was hoping to capture on tape.
The set does, however, close on a bright note, with six live cuts that show very clearly (arguably even more than the hours’ worth of live footage on 2002’s Slow Century DVD set) that Pavement were hardly dead and buried as a live act. It would’ve been nice to have more live material, but it’s a welcome change to see the band in a favorable light again after so much aimless miasma. Malkmus famously played the last show in support of Terror Twilight with handcuffs around his mic stand, telling the crowd that “these symbolize what it’s like being in a band all these years.” The fact is, now that his burgeoning musicianship had begun to demand more of him, he was chafing against the aesthetic he’d created as much as he was against his bandmates.
We can look at Terror Twilight as the sound of Pavement coming unglued, but we can also hear the music as the sound of a band holding together—just barely well enough—to transcend their limitations and out-do themselves one last time.
One caveat to keep in mind: The vinyl edition of this set consists of Godrich’s original proposed track sequence, which drastically alters the pacing of the album as we’ve known it all these years. It is strongly advised that you look before you leap, as there’s no way to tell what your impression of the album in that form will be until you hear it first. The CD version sticks with the order the band ended up releasing in ’99—Kannberg came up with it himself, much to Godrich’s dismay. For more on that, read his exclusive new interview with Paste about the making of the album.
Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com