For ten years, Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus has been rock & roll’s greatest expressionist, his work marked by an emotional clarity all the more impressive for the way it stays doggedly fuzzy around the edges. Terror Twilight is his most direct statement of purpose ever (in short: Things hurt, and growing up is hard, but kissing helps), and still the songs and lyrics slide around with a decorous unpredictability, like ice on a hot stove. This is an album full of folk-rock lucidity, tough-guy guitar spills, space-rock languor and a debonair heartache worthy of Seal or Morrissey. Give it half a chance and it will reveal itself as an exquisitely focused portrait of the most consistent band of the decade.
Pavement began the Nineties as indie-rock pranksters — California boys who used their noise-making toys for laughs and thrills. They were bighearted romantics who dressed arty, and they made their music for guys who never got over Molly Ringwald not choosing Ducky at the end of Pretty in Pink. Of course, they made their music for Molly Ringwald girls, too.
As their career has progressed, Pavement’s romanticism has only gotten bigger and less cluttered, causing at least one hip-hop-loving girl in her early twenties to enter a room where Terror Twilight was playing and ask whether it was the new Tom Petty. It is not, although it does feature lots of the sort of sweetly loping, open-armed guitar that makes people resort to words like “chiming” or “Byrds-like.” That’s largely due to producer Nigel Godrich, who gives Terror Twilight a clean, spacious gleam, like the entire album is unfolding in a downtown loft full of Danish modern furniture. (It is now official: Having provided the same Sixties-cool sci-fi gloss for records by Radiohead and Beck, Godrich is the Stanley Kubrick of Nineties rock.)
On Terror Twilight, songs begin slowly, speed up at the chorus, slow down again, then blast off in search of Venus, where the girls are. “Cream of Gold” is zero-gravity riff rock — the men of Pavement locked in a Skylab shootout with Aerosmith. The dreamy country-rock ballad “Major Leagues” — perhaps the dreamiest ballad Pavement (or anyone else, for that matter) have ever recorded — imagines them reuniting years down the line at the baby shower of a punk-rock chick they used to know. Images of sin and redemption pile up like old newspapers; guitars fold into intricate origami figures, then fly into the sun. And through it all, Malkmus’ fragile, lovely singing precisely maps out every twist and turn. In the great rock & roll tradition of discovery, he doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s blissfully unafraid, and on Terror Twilight he never loses his way.