Stephen Malkmus was spelling it out for us. The Pavement frontman has never been known as a straight shooter, and surely it’s folly to take anything out of his mouth at face value rather than assuming his every word is both slanted and enchanted. But how else were listeners supposed to interpret lyrics like the ones strewn throughout Terror Twilight? “Time is a one-way track and I am not coming back.” “The damage has been done/ I am not having fun anymore.” “I was tired of the best years of my life.” Even the title Terror Twilight, selected by percussionist/mascot Bob Nastanovich and often explained as a reference to the treacherous driving conditions during “the short span between sunset and dusk,” suggests time running out.
Pavement’s fifth and final LP — which turns 20 years old this Saturday — is unmistakably a breakup album. Who’s breaking up is not immediately so clear; most of the songs could just as easily be chronicles of a dissolving romance, and maybe that’s what they are. But the album also emerged just after Malkmus refused to sing during Pavement’s set at Coachella ’99, reportedly admitting to his bandmates afterward, “I just don’t want to do this anymore.” Within months the band played its final show in London with handcuffs fastened to Malkmus’ mic stand. Given that context, the way he began demonstrating his disillusionment with the whole operation before ultimately blowing it up, just about every track on Terror Twilight starts to feel like a funeral for one of history’s greatest indie rock bands. And to these ears it coheres into the beautiful, perverse eulogy Pavement deserves.
By the time Terror Twilight dropped, Pavement had already sealed their reputation as the defining band in ’90s indie rock. A diverse underground continued to proliferate, but at the end of the decade “indie rock” was often a synonym for “sounds like Pavement” — or, more generously, “sounds like Pavement, Guided By Voices, and Built To Spill.” They’d inspired myriad mainstream imitators, from Weezer’s star-making “Blue Album” to Blur’s surprise jock-jam crossover “Song 2” and its Pavement-indebted parent album. Their slapdash pop-rock and absurdist remove had captured the imagination of legions of music geeks, including Radiohead, whose producer Nigel Godrich helmed Terror Twilight and whose instrumental wizard Jonny Greenwood played harmonica on two tracks. (Radiohead later invited Malkmus’ post-Pavement band the Jicks to open some shows on their Hail To The Thief tour, which was very special for me as a college kid whose pathway to indie rock ran directly through Radiohead and Pavement.)
Malkmus wasn’t wrong to want out. Pavement had run its course. Many fans swear by 1997’s Brighten The Corners, which counts the endlessly quotable “Stereo” and cofounder Spiral Stairs’ masterwork “Date With IKEA” among its highlights. But following three landmark albums on which they established a new template and twice brilliantly upended it, Malkmus largely seemed to be going through the motions on Brighten The Corners. To these ears it sounds like Pavement on autopilot. Give me Terror Twilight over it any day.
Terror Twilight has always been divisive, partially because the album itself was birthed from division. First there was the growing rift between Malkmus and Spiral, aka Scott Kannberg, whose more meager contributions to the band had always been overshadowed. Initial sessions in Portland petered out when Malkmus and others kept opting to play Scrabble rather than record, much to Spiral’s frustration. (I’ve been the less talented guy in the band who attempted to exert control by cracking the whip on functional matters; it’s not fun for anyone.) Then there was the tug of war between Malkmus and Godrich, who offered to produce the album for free but selected high-end New York and London studios that ended up costing the band a fortune.
If Malkmus eventually grew weary of Godrich’s high production standards — which, despite Pavement’s progression from their lo-fi origins, marked a significant break from precedent — Godrich himself became fed up with the band’s refusal to go all-in on his vision of a bizarro stoner album. Terror Twilight does contain some sprawling epics, one of which Godrich hoped would open the album, paralleling the way Radiohead had situated “Paranoid Android” near the start of OK Computer. The band ultimately chose to kick things off with “Spit On A Stranger,” one of the gentlest and loveliest tunes in their catalog, which would later be covered by Chris Thile’s bluegrass-pop outfit Nickel Creek. (For what it’s worth, Godrich meshed much better with Malkmus’ fellow ’90s California slacker iconoclast Beck on his serious artiste turns Mutations and Sea Change.)
A lot of people were working at cross-purposes here, and you can tell. The resulting record ended up disappointing both Malkmus and Godrich, not to mention a significant portion of Pavement’s fan base. Two decades later, though, it sounds pretty fucking sick to me. There are ways in which Terror Twilight feels less like the final Pavement album than the launch of the Malkmus solo career that would begin in earnest with 2001’s self-titled LP. It certainly predicts the noodly soft-rock and prog excursions he’d embark upon with the Jicks on 2003’s remarkable Pig Lib and beyond. But in hindsight none of those records are as rich, fascinating, or consistently awesome as Pavement’s grand, twisted finale.
Terror Twilight often delves into tender melancholy, as on “Spit On A Stranger” and “Major Leagues,” the last in a long line of singles that failed to make Pavement alternative radio superstars. Just as often, it rips, as on “Platform Blues” and especially “Speak, See, Remember,” a multi-part saga that rivals the grandeur of Wowee Zowee’s searing freakout “Half A Canyon.” Some songs are sighingly gorgeous, others are weird, winding journeys. It’s a collection of music with many tangled appendages; occasionally it trips over itself, as on the stilted chorus that sends “Billie” sideways, or wanders aimlessly into darkness, as on “The Hexx.” More often than not, Pavement’s knack for sneaking up by surprise manifests one last time in dazzling flourishes (“You Are A Light”), magnificent riffs (“Cream Of Gold”), and an aesthetic that at once feels like a left turn and a fitting culmination.
It all winds up with “Carrot Rope,” a surprisingly joyful outburst that finds Malkmus, Spiral, and bassist Mark Ibold trading bars like they’re the goddamned Beastie Boys. That playful camaraderie plus a parade of squelching, chiming guitars and the rhythm section’s friendly bounce add up to a happy epilogue, a preemptive reunion before the breakup. “Carrot Rope” is easily a top 10 Pavement song, and like most of the best Pavement songs, it’s just boundlessly fun. There’s something different about this one, though. It sounds like a group of underground icons walking off into the sunset, perhaps not fully resolved in their conflicts but content with their contribution to music at large. It’s a legacy they can be proud of, Terror Twilight very much included.