When Did Pavement's 'Wowee Zowee' Become a Masterpiece?

Rob Sheffield's critical investigation into the revisionist history surrounding the band's 1995 LP

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On April 11th, 1995, Pavement released their third album, Wowee Zowee, and everybody hated it. Everybody. Pavement fans around the country were on the phone telling each other, "We're gonna get through this. Don't panic. The next album will be great." I had Easter dinner with friends, and all anyone wanted to talk about was how guilty we felt for not wanting to hear our favorite band's new album. (Most of us were Catholics, now that I think of it.)

Stephen Malkmus on why everybody wants to be a Nineties kid

These days, Wowee Zowee is rightly acclaimed as a masterpiece — it's conventional to call it Pavement's best album. "It's their Sgt. Pepper!" I was informed last month by a kid who accosted me in a bar for the sole purpose of telling me this. Nobody ever believes me when I tell them how disappointed Pavement fans were at the time. When Gen X types try to make sense of the Nineties legacy — call it "Cobain-splaining" — there is no tougher topic than Wowee Zowee. How did this flop turn into a masterpiece?

Bizarre to imagine now, I know, but Wowee Zowee came on as a stoner blow-off after the art-punk flash of Slanted and Enchanted and the melodic rush of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. So what Pavement weren't doing on this album was more audible than what they were doing. WZ didn't get appreciated until Pavement made Brighten the Corners, a totally different album that put the previous one's oddities into perspective. As a friend said when Terror Twilight came out, "People are gonna underrate this one to make up for overrating Brighten, just like they overrated Brighten to make up for underrating Wowee Zowee."

The reviews were dismally disappointed, whether they were equivocating politely ("an album best enjoyed at a casual low volume, paying little attention to the effort and details," said Spin) or complaining honestly ("an unfinished rehearsal," said Rolling Stone) or scraping the bottom of the compliment barrel ("catchy numbers like ‘Brinx Job,' a zany statement on success, wake you up as you start to drift off from irony and exhaustion," said Entertainment Weekly) or just kind of being a needy bitch about it ("a great band trying hard to prove they can suck and half succeeding," said Details). And those were the reviews that were trying to be nice. Guess which one was me? (Or don't — the Interglut didn't exist in 1995, and let's face it, you have no idea how to use microfilm, which is good news for those of us who were slamming Wowee Zowee while praising Menswear. But next time you're in the library, hit the microfilm and have a cheap laugh on me.)

The boldest defender was Robert Christgau in the Village Voice, who dared to suggest it was their best. But in the Voice's year-end Pazz & Jop critics' poll, WZ limped in at Number 17, after Pavement's previous albums both finished second. (Behind Hole in 1994 and uh, Arrested Development in 1992.) It lagged behind Joan Osborne, Son Volt, Emmylou Harris and (this one had to hurt) Smashing Pumpkins.

There are many reasons the playful beauty of WZ got lost, even for those of us who worshipped Pavement. The initial advance tapes (the ones critics reviewed) weren't quite finished, with different mixes and sequencing and titles ("Fight This Generation" was "Genna Genna Ration"). But even Stephen Malkmus seemed skeptical. He wrote a manifesto for the press kit: "Do you like progress? Not me. Progress is predictable and predictability involves science. I want nothing to do with science. Life is not a chemistry test. We spend our time in the smoking section, killing ourselves slowly, avoiding the light at all costs." Poetic words, right? Yet this also sounded suspiciously like Malk-talk for "Not as good as Crooked Rain, so don't get your hopes up, cheese."

Another huge factor: Guided By Voices released Alien Lanes a week before Wowee Zowee, and crushed it by comparison at the time. Alien Lanes was clearly GBV's masterwork, a near-perfect 28-song onslaught. (The only clinkers are "Hit" and "Dumbcharger," but they're 96 seconds combined, which is briefer than "Western Homes.") It made WZ sound flimsier than it really was. (Seriously, have you played "King and Caroline" lately? Or "Alright"? "Motor Away?" Goddamn.)

Yo La Tengo dropped Electr-O-Pura a few weeks later, and again, the contrast wasn't kind to Wowee Zowee. I mean, what can you say about an album where "My Heart's Reflection" is the fucking tenth-best song? (Has any rock label had a run like Matador in 1995? No.) It was a glorious year for guitar bands, partly because Pavement raised the creative stakes — so many bands were trying to make their own Crooked Rain. But Pavement had already made theirs, and were off trying something different.

So the music took time. But in the Nineties, albums cost 20 bucks, and people listened like crazy before they gave up. If you loved Pavement, you kept giving the new one another chance to click, until it finally did. (Like the man sang, "Count to 10 and read, until the lights begin to bleed.") It helped that Pavement spent the summer of 1995 on a historic Lollapalooza bill with Sonic Youth, Hole, Elastica, Beck, Moby, Superchunk and the Jesus Lizard.

Another key was the excellent songs Pavement kept releasing in 1996. The Pacific Trim EP sounded exactly how fans wanted Wowee Zowee to sound, and that went double for "Sensitive Euro Man," from the I Shot Andy Warhol soundtrack. (One of the Malk's saddest lines: "The calendar girls told me what month it was.") If they'd used "Give It a Day" or "Sensitive Euro Man" as the fourth song on Wowee, instead of "Brinx Job," the whole album would have felt different. (Which might be why they didn't.)

Yet the best thing that happened to Wowee Zowee, in terms of history, was Brighten the Corners. It had the majestic guitar beauty WZ lacked and got the rave reviews WZ didn't get, making it easier to go back and hear what the band was up to before. It was a one-two punch like Radiohead with Kid A and Amnesiac, or Elvis Costello with King of America and Blood and Chocolate — there's a diffuse first half and a linear second half, but you need to hear both to appreciate them. By the end of the Nineties, it was already a cliché to rate WZ much higher than BTC. I prefer BTC, but I love both, so that's fine with me. Also, WZ is the stoner's Pavement album of choice, and the stoners are usually the ones who make canonical decisions like this, since they tend to be the hardest-core fans of whatever they're into.

Everybody loves Wowee Zowee now, including the fans who were traumatized by it in 1995. It's one of my most-played albums ever. So maybe it should seem shameful how everybody got this music so wrong then — but somehow it doesn't. That "count to 10" process before the lights begin to bleed — it's built into this music. Pavement made an album designed to make people keep changing their minds, because changing your mind about things is fun and that's part of what music is for. Like the song says, no one has a clue.