Back in 1997, Stephen Malkmus was asked in an interview when it was that Pavement sold out or tried to make their sound more accessible. To the interviewer’s surprise, the indie hero said Slanted and Enchanted, the band’s celebrated 1992 debut. “We made a bunch of singles before that,” Malkmus recalled. Slanted might seem dissonant and avant-garde in retrospect, he said, “but then I felt it was such a pop album.”
Indeed, songs like “Summer Babe” and “Zurich Is Stained” were actually lovely pop nuggets in comparison to the crazy, caustic noise rock that Pavement offered in the very earliest years of their career. To Malkmus, if not to many critics and fans, Slanted was just the first step in the band’s reconciliation with the “mainstream” of the indie music industry, such as it was.
One shouldn’t forget the context into which Pavement strode into semi-public consciousness, as prospective entrants in the indie/alt-rock sweepstakes. In the early 1990s, A&R reps and their labels played a delicate dance of trying to figure out what was weird enough to gain alternative cred and edge, but not too weird to break through into the new space pried open by Nirvana’s seemingly out-of nowhere ascendancy in 1991. Sometimes things that were not too revolutionary broke through: Pearl Jam’s “Alive” or Stone Temple Pilot’s PJ doppelganger of a hit, “Plush.” Occasionally some very weird and unexpected things somehow garnered mainstream pop acceptance, however fleetingly: “Loser” by Beck, “She Don’t Use Jelly” by the Flaming Lips, “Jesus Built My Hotrod” by Ministry, or “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers.
Pavement was definitely on the left fringe of this alternative-to-mainstream insurgency, but they seemed like they might, plausibly, be contenders, based on the frazzled tune craft of the seminal S & E.
It might seem weird, then, to posit that 1995’s Wowee Zowee is the quintessential Pavement album. It’s not the “sophomore slump”—Pavement dodged that danger with the beloved Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which was as good an accommodation of indie spirit and pop song craft as there has been, nearly vaulting the rock satire single “Cut Your Hair” into alt-glory—but Wowee Zowee remains the “difficult third album.” When Matador Records re-released the album in 2006, replete with B-sides, outtakes, live songs and compilation tracks, Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson admitted Wowee Zowee had underwhelmed many fans when it was released in 1995. However, time and repeated listens had changed opinions. “The original A, stretching from ‘We Dance’ to ‘Serpentine Pad,’ may be the best album side they ever managed,” he wrote.
After the successes of Slanted and Crooked Rain, Pavement seemed to be lost about where to go. In many ways, they doubled down on the weird and loopy spirit of their first album, daring listeners and critics to wade into a deep pool of languid grooves, frantic dissonance, and extensive wordplay. According to Richardson, the lyrics have nothing to do with meaning and everything to do with interaction: “Malkmus was obviously picking words mostly by how they sounded, which by and large worked out great.” Perhaps after Crooked Rain failed to break through on its apparent pop promise, the band decided, “Fuck it,” and just made the album they wanted to make. Or maybe they just didn’t have any idea what they were doing or where they were going.
The album contains many certified gems, from the elegiac album-opener “We Dance” to the country-tinged “Father to a Sister of Thought,” all pedal guitar and R.E.M.-esque melancholy. But it’s not as strong a collection song-for-song as Crooked Rain; it’s not as spastic or experimental as their classic debut; nor is it as polished as Brighten the Corners or Terror Twilight, the band’s late-career denouement that increasingly revealed Malkmus’s latent classic-rock jones, which would become clearer in his solo career. (Nowadays, Malkmus seems intent on letting the world know he’s just as interested in his fantasy sports teams as music.)
In this way, Wowee is the Pavementest of Pavement—witty, gangling, goofy, and often utterly careless, if not carefree. It’s sort of like the band’s White Album: a big, sprawling, crazy mess that reveals the artists at their freest and most idiosyncratic, the kind of imperfect album that only occurs when a band or musician has attained a certain degree of notoriety or acceptance and can risk fucking up.
Which might be all for the best, as the band felt free to fuck around even if it meant definitively giving up their chance at alt-rock stardom. Perhaps we really know people best when they are at their most unguarded–and that’s how Wowee Zowee feels twenty years later. Richardson might be right about the meaninglessness of the album’s lyrics, but it seems hard to believe that when the songs point to similar themes over and over, something meaningful, if obscure, isn’t at the heart of it all. After all, the most radical of twentieth century poetry (think John Ashbery, a noted Malkmus influence, or Clark Coolidge) eschews narrative, but if one really takes in the language, a certain shape forms. “I can’t enjoy myself, I can’t enjoy myself,” Malkmus sings on the album’s opener, the aforementioned “We Dance.” “I don’t have a clue anymore/Maybe we could dance together.” In retrospect, it set the tone for an album that seems defined by a meandering, strangely relaxed desperation. “No one has a clue/The party’s shot” he relates on the third track, “Black Out.” The smart-ass, mocking security of the second album fades away replaced by a jaded reality. “They’re soaking up the fauna and doing blotters and I don’t know which boys are dying on these streets,” on one of the album’s sharpest songs “Grounded.” Interestingly, for this writer (or should I say one of these two writers), the best song is the only one not by Malkmus, but rather Spiral Stairs, “Kennel District.” The driving opening riff sounds metalesque with the looping higher pitched guitar backing it up, announcing the song more directly than any other on the album: “I wanted you to stay there but I needed you more than that,” with Malkmus repeating over and over, “why didn’t I ask? why didn’t I ask?” at the end. Again, maybe it is all gibberish, but there sure seems to be more than a touch of desperate reflection running through Wowee Zowee.
Stylistically, Wowee Zowee runs the gamut, as the band channeled lazy interpretations of country and jazz in spots, dollops of the blues, and a healthy dash of Sonic Youth into their version of indie rock. The album has a definite punk edge to it both aurally (“Flux=Rad,” “Fight this Generation,” “Serpentine Pad”) and in terms of the generally short length of many of the songs. Of all Pavement albums, Wowee Zowee was the Bob-Pollard-est, with the restless attention deficit of its fleeting songs evoking Guided by Voice at their best. Indeed, it fit with the general shagginess of the era, at a time when no band wanted to seem like they wanted it too much and perhaps Pavement wanted “it” least. To be fair, ToM has had Pavement on the mind for years. In 2010, we wrote an extensive piece on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. In it, we noted that almost too on-the-nose lyric by the National in their contribution to the excellent Dark Was the Night compilation. On “So Far Around the Bend” Matt Berninger sings “You’ve been humming in a daze forever/Praying for Pavement to get back together.” Of course soon after, the band did performing across the nation on a somewhat abbreviated reunion tour. Yet, perhaps this is all too generous. Context means a great deal with music: when we encountered it, how it engaged us, the head space one find themselves in at the time.
For me (RR), Pavement’s music parallels my earlier interest in hardcore punk or metal. The band’s intellectual snottiness appealed to me in spades when I was in and just out of college. Every administrator seemed like a buffoon, every boss too self serious, self righteous, or bitter to see all of life’s ironies. “It’s all BS don’t you know?!” Pavement understood all this. Malkmus et al seemed to poke everything and everyone in the eye, an aspect of the band that at the time aligned with a particular worldview. Likewise, the brute aggression of hardcore punk appealed to me as an angry teen, but today, I just can’t muster up the kind of righteous outrage required to truly enjoy old school Cro-Mags or Slayer. Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions to the rule: Fugazi, Pavement’s CRCR (to this day in a personal pantheon), Biggie’s Ready to Die, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique, and a handful of other examples, but would I throw on Wowee Zowee now on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Honestly, I don’t know.
Richardson’s 2006 review got several things right: namely, that the album is better than remembered and has aged with a certain nobility. The sound of lyrical desperation that this listener detects is a saving grace, much like my favorite song off of CRCR, the darkish final track “Fillmore Jive.” A sleep deprived narrator (“I need to sleep, I need to sleep, why won’t you let me?”) recounts the various identities and styles inhabiting the music scene, none able to really align with the others or the his own. The streets are full of punks, rockers, “jazzbos with skinny arms,” but Malkmus can’t find satisfaction. “Good night to the rock and roll era,” he muses. “Because they don’t need you anymore, little girl, boy, girl, boyyyyyy…” At the end, perhaps finally dozing off, he sings/mutters “When they pull out their plug and snort up their drugs/Their throats are filled with …” and the song trails off.
Wowee Zowee embodied that wistful feeling of 1990s indie rock in its postmodern moment—Pavement putting its influences of pop, punk, indie, noise, metal, and classic rock in its Cuisinart blender, maybe contemplating a shot at momentary alt-stardom, but simultaneously sensing that rock itself might be on the verge of losing its cultural relevance. In retrospect, Pavement may have been more right than anyone realized in 1995. Rock itself has lost the primacy in the cultural conversation it enjoyed in the age of the Beatles or Springsteen or even Nirvana, ceding hegemonic influence to hip-hop and electronic dance music in the zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the ideals of indie integrity and non-commercialism that still reigned in Pavement’s day seem as quaint as Victrola record players when the digital revolution left artists feeling much less stigma about getting their song into a bubblegum commercial. “Dine by candelight and hold your savings tight,” Malkus exhorts. “You never, you never know /When the bridge falls apart!” Indeed, try selling Toyotas with that.