Pavement is guided by a voice integral to but rarely heard in rock—that of the Privileged White Guy, as played here by Stephen Malkmus. He began with “love” songs set in monied locales like “Here” and “Summer Babe” (the Salinger phase); he’s snapped on hoi polloi pop artists Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots (the Waugh phase); and now, on the new Brighten the Corners, Malkmus paints full-fledged WASP dystopias like “Embassy Row” and “We Are Underused” (let’s call it Cheever and hope he stays there). Many of the lyrics on this album sound like they were transcribed at the back of a town meeting somewhere in Connecticut, with talk about stiff upper lips, visas, voice coaches, limousines, perfectly prepared roasts, wedding invitations, and so on. You almost expect to get a note from Malkmus—within three days of course—thanking you for buying the record.
This is not what we’re used to hearing from rock musicians. Rock musicians—from Alice Cooper to Mark E. Smith—like to talk about humble beginnings, junkie mentors, how they hated school, how all they wanna do is rock. Brighten the Corners is rock that admits it’s never been anywhere near the crossroads and couldn’t care less.
Pavement often downplays the importance of lyrics—Malkmus told Time Out New York recently that he doesn’t take the words seriously, and that he’d rather hear a good song with shit lyrics than the opposite. I’ll take him at his word when I hear him rattling off “Embrace the senile genius / Watch her reinvent the wheel / I don’t need your summary acts / To give in to the narrative age,” from “Old to Begin.” But on a good deal of Brighten the Corners, his lyrics suggest something more than they suggest nothing—and if not, why bother to include them in the package? Some of his terms seem to be vague alt.culture references (tone clusters, futurists, “the Kaiser”) but some are specific enough to be weird words to some and actual experiences to others: “Starlings of the Slipstream” features the phrase “Call a jitney, drive away.” Does anyone outside the Hamptons even know what a jitney is?
“Shady Lane,” which sounds like an anthem for white flight, contains the lines “Tell me off in the hotel lobby right in front of all the bellboys / And the over-friendly concierge.” Here’s class conflict summarized in one sentence: Not in front of the help, dear. “A redder shade of neck on a whiter shade of trash / Glance, don’t stare, soon you’re being told to recognize your heirs / The worlds collide / And all we really want is a shady lane” doesn’t mean anything as specific as “I am going to fuck the light socket” or “I love you, you big dummy,” but it certainly connotes something, whatever that is not looking too good for the white trash.
Malkmus claims the words on Brighten the Corners were inspired by John Ashbery’s Hotel Lautréamont; thus we’re to infer that they aren’t about him. But had he in fact stolen every line of the record from Ashbery, it would still tell us something about Malkmus—he didn’t borrow from Anne Rice or quote Pulp Fiction, for instance. I don’t need to believe that Malkmus his actual self is the protagonist of any of these songs to hear that the words rolling off his tongue are comfortable in his mouth. But my aim isn’t to praise or call Malkmus to task for using certain words. In the context of Pavement (as opposed to the world we all live in), the words work as well as any previous lyrics, albeit leaning toward a new grace and swing and away from the old freaky and foxy. The thread I’m pulling on is class: how did it get in here?
Unlike Americans, British rockers love to talk about class explicitly. Unless you are under the spell of a duppy, you’ve probably noticed that Pulp’s “Common People” is about the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Artists like Ray Davies, Morrissey, and Blur are delighted to talk about just where on the pegboard everyone is. Why the Kinks have “A Well-Respected Man” (specific portrait of class representative) while Gaunt has “Rich Kid” (as in “fuck the . . . “) can be explained a couple ways.
One, Americans have such a fierce faith in financial mobility that even mentioning one’s temporary position in the class structure feels like an admission of defeat (though I’m guessing that the failure of the American farm, the death of industry, and the widening income gap, among other things, are dissolving this belief). Two, the Brits use pointed humor as both a binder and a palliative—Pulp and TV shows like East Enders (a long-running prime-time soap about lovable lower-middle-class folks) give the have-nots pride and the haves a way to take the piss out of themselves publicly yet harmlessly. Americans have proven better at expressing sweeping hostility toward the monied—Married . . . With Children—and have only recently begun to see class as a condition they have to get used to.
But if most American myths have been about movin’ on up, rock ‘n’ roll has traditionally been about getting down and dirty. Another recent Time Out piece, about the reissued Squirrel Bait albums, disparagingly describes the band as Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs “aided by a bunch of upper-middle-class kids like him playing at punk.” The implication, of course, is that because the kids were born to upper-middle-class parents, they couldn’t be “real” punk rockers. Never mind that Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met at boarding school, or that Lee Ranaldo’s been writing concerned letters to the New York Times about his kid’s education.
Consider Pavement’s labelmate Jon Spencer: He goes to Brown, drops out, and starts a succession of bands long on primitivism. Indirectly, his Blues Explosion displays some kind of considered or maybe even intellectual aesthetic—feeding blues tropes through Lower East Side filters—but visually and verbally, the band trucks in trailer-park antifrippery (not to mention anti-Frippery): turn up your collar, shake a tail feather, and don’t think so much, you eggheads. This is a very different arrangement of background and foreground than Malkmus’s. Wearing what looks like last year’s Christmas haul, Malkmus presents the rocker as alumnus, with no low-rent qualifiers like “I quote John Ashbery but I’m actually a raging, pedophilic drunk.”
Malkmus’s disregard for the signifiers of class that have had rockers scuffing up their jackets, pounding heroin, and changing their surnames to Dylan for decades constitutes a sort of accidental antirevolution in American rock. Among Malkmus’s countrymen, perhaps only Bruce Springsteen so clearly and consistently writes about class. Yet unlike Springsteen, who chooses words first to describe class relationships and second to clang poetically, Malkmus takes a romp through his shady backyard and comes back with images of class stuck to his socks like burrs. He’s not making a commentary on the big bad world of privilege, just an unstudied reflection of environment: this is what’s around me and I don’t care if it impresses minor criminals. No Altamont for the Pavement.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo courtesy Lounge Ax/ album cover.