The sound of Terror Twilight, the final album from Pavement, the Platonic ideal of 1990s indie rockers, was the guitar-waggle of frustration, the warp and woof of a brilliant songwriter and still-more-brilliant guitarist struggling against the limits of a band he’d outgrown. By 1999, Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus had long lapped his bandmates, the gents with whom he defined a genre for a solid decade, and on Terror Twilight, reissued in this glorious fan-service-ish package, one can hear it in every note of that progression and struggle.
Following their 1997 album Brighten the Corners, an album of elegant guitarscapes and late-twentysomething epiphanies, Terror Twilight, with its languorous soft-rock melodies, crystalline sound courtesy of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and jaw-dropping guitar solos, pointed the way toward the next 20 years of Malkmus’ solo career.
But it sounds, even decades later, oddly off from Pavement’s previous work, and the band knows it. In the canny liner notes for this reissue, guitarist Scott Kannberg calls it their All Shook Down, a reference to the final Replacements album, a record clearly designed to be the solo debut of the band’s songwriter, Paul Westerberg. This is absolutely correct — many Pavement fans blanched at the proggier structures of songs such as the jarring “Platform Blues” and the marvelous jam “The Hexx.” But they also got their deepest sense yet of just how gorgeous a soloist Malkmus could be, bringing together generations of guitar thinkers from Neil Young and Richard Thompson to Tom Verlaine and Robert Quine. It’s perfect foreshadowing for his 21st-century solo records, which have just gotten guitar-loopier by the year.
This album’s story is a mess. The band convened at Echo Canyon, Sonic Youth’s space in New York, only to have Godrich declare it inadequate. A few nicer studios later, Pavement produced an album unlike their others — where once was mid-fi grit, there was now Godrich’s sheen. Where all of the other Pavement albums sounded recorded rather than worked over, Terror Twilight felt capital-P produced, with fizzy intros and outros all over the place. The LP version of this behemoth reissue uses the running order Godrich came up with — difficult songs first, singles buried in the middle. Some will find it revelatory (still more might say “what’s a running order?”). And those singles are still incredible. “Spit on a Stranger” and “Major Leagues” are some of Malkmus’ finest work, blissful California melodies and romantic swagger. The laid-back grooves on “Creme of Gold” and “You Are a Light” have aged shockingly well. (“Carrot Rope,” on the other hand, remains terrible, and the tossed-off-sounding previously unreleased “Be the Hook” absolutely should have replaced it.)
The extras are a feast for serious Pavement lunatics. There are takes from the Echo Canyon sessions, Malkmus’ home demos with rickety drum machines, and a few live tracks from what fans might remember as a very crabby (but well-played) tour. One can assemble a much scruffier version of this alternately staggering and frustrating album (including Kannberg’s songs such as “Stub Your Toe” and “Your Time to Change” which didn’t make the cut the first time around and ended up as B sides). But then, that wouldn’t quite be Terror Twilight, the swan song that left fans of a generation-defining band wondering what would come next.