By January 1992, Nirvana's Nevermind had replaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous on top of the Billboard charts. We marveled earlier this year when Vampire Weekend's Contra topped the charts. With all due respect to VW's accomplishment, their showing is not a surprise at all. Contra is a great record full of songs that dote on you like an eager puppy, but Nevermind, on the other hand, is full of drop-tuned guitars and post-adolescent belly-aching. Yes, at the heart of Nevermind beats the heart of a pop record, but that heart is floating in piss and vinegar. In 1992, a huge segment of the record buying public decided that they wanted to own Nevermind, enough people to oust Michael Fucking Jackson!
With that in mind, it's easy to say that Pavement's debut, Slanted & Enchanted, was born into a friendly world of credibility-hungry fans. Of course, that's not the case at all: S & E has sold all of about 150,000 copies compared to Nevermind's obscene 25 million plus copies. But the Nirvana/Pavement dichotomy is essential to understanding American rock in the 90s. Nirvana proved that a punk band could sell-out and still maintain their credibility. Kurt Cobain was being pathologically modest when he called Nirvana a 90s version of Cheap Trick or The Knack, but its worth remembering that DGC was David Geffen's personal record label. But Pavement proved that building indie cred didn't have to be such a humorless process. You could be punk without having to subscribe to the scene's absurd rules about authenticity. And now, almost two decades (!) after the fact, Nevermind sounds more like a cultural document while S & E still sounds like a radical musical document.
From the magnificent "Summer Babe" to the crusty "No Life Singed Her" to the quietly thoughtful "Here," S & E is an album made by a few college boys who weren't principled enough to be punks. They seemed to prefer weed to speed, talking sports to talking shop. And these guys weren't afraid to make a record that sounded like hanging out with your friends. The album sounds like this because it was made by guys hanging out together in a studio. And more than Nevermind or any other seminal rock record of the 90s, S & E is a lot of fun to listen to because it was probably a lot of fun to make. Malkmus laughs at his own lyrics in "Summer Babe" just as he's setting up the epic and glorious finale. The explosion of goblin gibberish at the end of "Chesley's Little Wrists" is still hilarious. And it's amazing to me that Malkmus holds it together when he sings about "crotch mavens" on the stately and beautiful "Here."
While Malkmus and Co. are careful not to be too self-serious about their music, they frequently transcend the goofiness of the lyrics or the rust of the production to make something grand that feels both intensely personal and sweepingly universal. Take "Loretta's Scars," for example. The song begins modestly enough, but soon the bass chords come barreling in and the rest of the music just rockets out of the studio, gaining thrust and momentum until the song is a few miles high. Likewise, the masterful "In the Mouth a Desert" see-saws back and forth between the bassy verses and the shimmering choruses, and Malkmus' voice gets more passionate as the song proceeds.
I don't think it's insignificant that I still listen to S & E on a regular basis. I don't put it on to take a trip down memory lane; it's just a part of my normal listening habits. "Conduit for Sale!" still raises my blood-pressure, and "Two States" still makes me smile. Despite the fact that I've probably listened to it hundreds of times, "Summer Babe" still feels as liberating and anthemic as it did when I first heard it 15 or 16 years ago.
Matador has reissued Pavement's studio catalog on vinyl for the low low price of $10, which you can purchase right here.
Tomorrow, I will look at Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain as part of Pavement Week here at No Genre.