Even if Terror Twilight is the least Pavement-y Pavement have ever sounded, it’s still a damn good Pavement album.
Terror Twilight’s reputation among Pavement fans–and, indeed, its reputation to the members of the band–is perhaps best summarized by the opening lines of “Ann Don’t Cry,” in which Stephen Malkmus laconically sings “The damage has been done/ I am not having fun anymore.” Of all of Pavement’s albums, Terror Twilight is the only one whose music takes something of a backseat to the interpersonal sniping surrounding it. To hear it told, the album is Pavement’s zombie record, a Stephen Malkmus solo album with a different name slapped on it in a vain attempt to cover up the band’s inevitable dissolution. Yet that not only mischaracterizes the album slightly; it also serves as an unfair assessment for what is quite an enjoyable album whose only sin might be that it didn’t live up to the impossible standards Pavement already set.
By this time, Pavement’s guiding principles appeared to be presenting a mellower take on their signature sound while simultaneously writing broader, less arch songs. This isn’t to say that Stephen Malkmus was suddenly ceasing to be Stephen Malkmus, but by the time they recorded Brighten the Corners in 1997, Pavement had morphed into a calmer, more meditative musical entity than they had been. This was only emphasized on Terror Twilight, whose songs seem tailor-made to be played either as the sun is just rising or setting, periods of time when the world is deliberately slowing down just a little bit. This is further encouraged by the presence of producer Nigel Godrich, who appears to be steering Pavement towards the space-folk sound he’d eventually perfect with Beck on Sea Change. Godrich’s presence is where Pavement get steered into some odd directions, though. While he provides some interesting sonic textures on some of the more arch compositions like “Folk Jam” and “Cream of Gold,” he appears to be stifling the band’s playful nature a little bit. Pavement were never as loose and shambolic as their reputation suggested–the thing that made them great was arguably that they could sound rough while remaining in complete control of what they were doing–but Godrich managed to sand off as many edges as he could to create a pretty crafted, rehearsed presentation of Pavement. It mostly works, but it’s still a little odd to hear a version of Pavement that is this tightly controlled.
Fortunately, the songs here are perfectly tailored for this version of Pavement. While far removed from the freewheeling experimentation of, say, Wowee Zowee, this more song-oriented version of Pavement has quite a lot to offer. Two of the band’s best-ever songs, “Spit on a Stranger” and “The Hexx,” bookend the album magnificently. In between, there are charming, sincere moments (“Major Leagues” and “Billie” being particular highlights), as well as Malkmus’ traditional arch wordplay. Song for song, Terror Twilight is pretty strong effort, with only the meandering “Speak, See, Remember” coming close to being a lowlight. In fact, it’s arguably an improvement on Brighten the Corners, which also had meandering moments that were something of an acquired taste. In many respects, Terror Twilight is much better than people seem to remember.
If there is a flaw to point to on Terror Twilight, it’s the aspect of the album that makes people regard it as a Malkmus solo effort. The album doesn’t especially sound like the sort of semi-fried jam offerings that Malkmus would soon start offering, but it is telling that Malkmus completely dominates proceedings here. No one but the most ardent Preston School of Industry fans would ever argue that Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg were songwriting equals, but Spiral’s songs offered something different on each album, and by this point his contributions went from being off-beat experiments to proper, enjoyable songs. Yet he’s shut out of the album entirely in favor of Malkmus compositions. It’s not just that there are no other songwriting contributions, either: you don’t even really hear anyone else in the band until “Carrot Rope,” the very last song on the album. Whether because of apathy or because of a domineering Malkmus, the rest of Pavement are made to keep their contributions as anonymous as possible, and that can only rob Terror Twilight of some of the character that other Pavement albums are positively brimming with.
Even if Terror Twilight is the least Pavement-y Pavement have ever sounded, it’s still a damn good Pavement album. In the hands of a big-name producer, Pavement found a way to mostly sound like themselves, even as they embraced Godrich’s tweaks and modifications on their core sound. What’s sad is that this doesn’t sound like an ending; a few songs work as tentative steps into new musical territory, new ideas that Pavement could have explored had they kept going. Perhaps that’s why some fans soured on this album despite some clear merits: even at its best, Terror Twilight can’t help but remind listeners of what could have been.