It's not easy being a songwriter who matters when no one knows what you're talking about. But, at his best, Pavement's Stephen Malkmus pulls it off. Depending on how linear he's feeling, Malkmus' lyrics range in difficulty from Myst conundrums to Jackson Pollock paintings. The difference on Pavement's new album, Brighten the Corners, is that while Malkmus is as oblique as ever, the band's sound is coming into fully realized focus. Like R.E.M.'s Murmur an album produced by Mitch Easter, who also assisted on Corners the music on Pavement's new LP is engaging enough to carry the band's flighty frontman.
In making Corners, bandleaders Malkmus and guitarist Scott Kannberg loosened up the strict hierarchy of Pavement. For the first time, the group's five members, who live in different cities, were in the same place at the same time to record an album. The irony is, as the band mates near their 30s and get married (both Kannberg and drum-mer Steve West recently got hitched), Pavement are finally becoming a proper band.
Corners reaffirms what was likable about Pavement in the first place: their angular but graceful melodies, their languorous anti-anthems and, of course, Malkmus' labyrinthine and often funny or poignant lyrical turns. Unlike 1995's fragmented Wowee Zowee and 1994's adventurous Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Brighten the Corners doesn't cut any new sonic trails for the group, aside from the "Strawberry Fields Forever"-ish Mellotron on "Transport Is Arranged" and a faux harpsichord on "We Are Underused." But the band's rhythm section is tighter now, thanks to years of touring, and there's a higher degree of polish spread throughout the album. Malkmus' obsessions with rock fandom, art and artifice have never been in such a cohesive context.
Take "Stereo," the first track on Corners and perhaps the most accessible song Pavement have made since their (modest) hit, 1994's "Cut Your Hair." "Stereo" is a dynamic, almost AOR statement, and it builds to the band's loudest, cleanest crescendo ever. What's more, the expressive range of Malkmus' fragile voice has grown. On the gorgeous "Blue Hawaiian," he moves from a cozy, conversational tone to a sad falsetto midphrase, over a gentle keyboard-driven groove. In a rare moment, he actually seems to be revealing something about himself. "If my soul had a shape," he sings metrically, "then it would be an ellipse."
Kannberg, for his part, partially comes out from behind his effects boxes and contributes two of his most confident songs yet, "Date 'With IKEA" and "Passat Dream." Appropriately, for a recent groom, both songs are insider's critiques of consumerism and domesticity. On "We Are Underused," Malkmus also plays off the distractions of adult life, ribbing a friend (perhaps West or Kannberg) about the "mental energy [he] wasted on this wedding invitation" and audibly smirking that "the roast was just so perfectly prepared."
The only real problem with Corners is the band's reliance on its trademark snail-paced arrangements. Pavement still delight in sounding like a strong wind could blow them away; we've heard this before on Crooked Rain's "Stop Breathing," for example, and on Slanted and Enchanted's "Here." There are a half-dozen down-tempo songs on Corners that range from mesmerizing ("Type Slowly") to turgid ("Fin").
But even the most sedentary tunes on Brighten the Corners have at least a few pleasures details that reveal themselves on repeated listenings: a precious melody here, a wicked pun caught in a skewed guitar riff there. And for all of Malkmus' wordplay, he's not being difficult for difficulty's sake anymore. After six years, Pavement have made a clean, well-lighted album.