In concert, Stephen Malkmus doesn’t sing his songs straight. He changes lyrics, messes with familiar cadences and emphases, and swaps phrases from one verse to another. Sometimes it seems like his modern self has figured out ways to improve twenty-year-old songs — like when he squeaks out a new high note on “Trigger Cut” (“I keep it in my hand!”) — but other times — like when, for no apparent reason, he sings “darling I don’t care if you cut your hair” instead of “darling don’t you go and cut your hair” at the beginning of “Cut Your Hair” — he plays into the old Stephen Malkmus stereotype: aloof, bratty, and with little connection to or regard for his fans.
Pavement, the legendary indie rock group Malkmus fronted, is just about done with their reunion tour (for now), during which I saw them twice (in Seattle and Denver), and the way Malkmus tweaked his vocals raises questions about the notoriously enigmatic singer. Pavement released five albums in the ’90s, then stayed broken up through the ’00s, so the people who come to their concerts have carried a limited catalog of songs in their heads and hearts for an entire decade. That’s how I felt as I mingled amongst the mob, anyway. We knew every single word to every single song, and we wanted to sing along.
And most of the time we got to. Standing right against the stage as the whole crowd belted out, “Ho! Listen to me! I’m on the stereo! Stereo-ho!” (from, duh, “Stereo”) was one of the moments I was put on this Earth to experience.
But sometimes Malkmus undermined us. He derailed the entire singalong of “In The Mouth of A Desert” when he opened with the second verse and, at both shows I attended, jumbled other lyrics around in an unpredictable but intentional way. He similarly distorted “Spit on a Stranger,” among others. And this led me to wonder: was it deliberate? Did he really want to shut the crowd up, at least during his more reflective songs? Was he frustrated that we would step on his detached persona with irony-free enthusiasm?
Maybe. But during a guitar break in “Grounded,” Malkmus walked toward the center of the stage, stuck both of his arms out with his palms facing up, and like basketball player who just drilled a clutch shot, beckoned us to bring the noise. We screamed. Not satisfied, he gestured again. We went nuts, and Malkmus tore into a guitar solo.
So which was it? Did Malkmus care about the crowd or not?
Honestly, I have no idea. None at all. Maybe he futzes with his singing because he’s bored with the old songs and he’s oblivious how it affects the audience. Or maybe his bawdy roof-raising was a motion of pure irony. Both, either, or neither seem plausible to me.
Despite a decade of adoration, I have no read whatsoever on Stephen Malkmus, his artistic motives, or his true personality.
Well, not quite a decade. I started listening to Pavement in 2003, when I was 16 years old. My obsession bloomed quickly; they became and remained my favorite band as I graduated high school and college, even as other artifacts of my teenage years wilted into nostalgia. In that time, I have easily spent twice as much time listening to Pavement as I have any other band.
But this created a curious problem when given the opportunity to finally see them live. I listen almost exclusively to new music, and my impression of a band doesn’t settle until I go to their show. And when I think about the acts I truly cherish, it seems that I need to witness an artist in person to really fall in love. I guess I can’t fully trust a band I’ve never seen.
Pavement was always the exception to this rule. My image of them solidified solely on the strength of their recorded music. Unlike seeing an active band after they release an album, where live and studio performances combine to form a baseline evaluation, a Pavement reunion show threatened to disturb a set foundation. Could a concert change the way I thought about my favorite band?
Well, um, no. Not in a big way, at least. Even as I wore a big dopey grin, as Malkmus tried to ruin his own songs, and as the audience crooned on with him, the old albums played louder in my mind. The people on the stage were just shadows thrown by the light of their past selves captured on tape in a studio.
In most cases.
There were, however, three songs whose performances superseded their album incarnations. “Here” took on a new cast of melancholy, a heaviness that doesn’t show through on Slanted & Enchanted. The opening notes of “Silence Kit” filled me up with an emotion there isn’t a word for, some sort of detached wistfulness. (Malkmus tried harder on that song than any other.) And “Summer Babe” became something gigantic, freed from its grainy recording, and overpowered the auditorium with an iconic energy I never knew it had.
Every Pavement fan has their own obscure favorites (“Harness Your Hopes,” anyone?), but the concerts convinced me that, predictable as it sounds, those three songs belong in a class of their own.
So I guess I changed my mind a little bit.
In his recent (and excellent) Stephen Malkmus profile for GQ , Chuck Klosterman poses a challenge to figure out Pavement’s appeal:
“I asked various Pavement fanatics one question: ‘What is Pavement’s music about?’”
This strikes me as a strange way to consider any sort of music. Off the top of my head, I don’t think I could say anything insightful regarding what any of my favorite bands’ music is “about.”
Playing along with the exercise, however, showed me something I didn’t expect. With every other band I considered, I knew where to start, even if the thought ultimately led nowhere. LCD Soundsystem is about looking back on the cultural superficialities of young urban life, or something. Radiohead is maybe kinda about balancing paranoia of society and government with personal tenderness. Fuck Buttons is about Victorian literature (trust me).
But I couldn’t come up with a single idea that stuck to Pavement’s music. Is it about suburbia? I mean, that works for a couple good songs, but plenty are urban too, some rural even, while others don’t fit that scheme at all. Is it about Malkmus’s insecurities? I guess a lot of it could be read that way, but he writes in character too often to really nail down his voice. Besides, some of lyrics are pretty fucking arrogant.
And so on.
The thought process became tiresome quickly, and worse, it ran counter to my entire relationship with the band. I’ve listened to their music for seven years, I know every word by heart, and though I hold an English degree, it never once occurred to me to tease out the meaning of Pavement. Not because I don’t think about bands that way, but because the music itself rebuffs the attempt. It doesn’t want you to know what it’s about. And that lingering mystery, at the heart of one weird musician and the impenetrable music he creates, is probably why Pavement will always be my favorite band.