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To Chop And Change: Pavement’s Wowee Zowee 20 Years On
Lesley Chow , December 15th, 2015 09:21

Lesley Chow dissects the (semi-) serious intent behind Stephen Malkmus' nonsensical rhymes on Pavement's 3rd album which was positioned as the "logical end-point of rock"

In 1995, Stephen Malkmus told Rolling Stone that Wowee Zowee was designed to be listened to with tracks randomly shuffled. His idea, presumably, was that the frayed ends of one song would dovetail into the beginnings of the next, forming fresh links each time. Whether or not Malkmus was serious, it’s a concept that works for this great and idiosyncratic album. Virtually every track ends on a point of irresolution: ‘Black Out’ finishes at mid-point, at a moment when most bands would be gearing up for the second half, while the close of ‘Brinx Job’ sounds like the dawn of a new song. Other tracks seem lopped off, concluding on an ascending note or the expectation of a chorus. Put all the chopped ends together, and you might find yourself with a complete work.

Wowee Zowee, Pavement’s third studio album, is such a fertile bunch of ideas that one might forget its starting point is actually entropy and exhaustion. In the opening track, ‘We Dance’, Malkmus already sounds drained, barely rousing the strength to go through the motions. But in typically perverse, roundabout style, the song finds its momentum in reverse, working its way back from a slow, chugging opening to something that resembles a pace. The second track, the single ‘Rattled By The Rush’, also defies expectations of what a hit should be, its heavy, stuttering guitars creating a perpetual stop-start.

Characteristic of the band, these songs are experiments in energy and lethargy: beginning with a relaxed, nowhere-to-go feel, cautiously doling out bits of chorus. Refusing every possibility of uplift, they sometimes threaten to flatline or stall altogether. That Malkmus has the ability to write irresistible riffs is never in doubt, but on Wowee Zowee, it’s all or nothing. Interspersed with these long, languorous numbers are bursts of explosive staccato force: ‘Serpentine Pad’, ‘Best Friend’s Arm’, ‘Flux = Rad’. These ultra-short songs are all hook and aggression, parodying the notion of “all killer, no filler”. Moderation, it seems, is the enemy of this album: either tracks begin with a deceptively deadpan tone, or they assault you with a faux-macho bluster which quickly burns itself out.

However, if there is a rule for Pavement, it’s that the catchier things get, the more elusive the lyrics need to be. ‘Serpentine Pad’ is a tirade about subjects as vague as “frequently called numbers” and “force-fed integration”, an expression of generic anger against the Man. In ‘Best Friend’s Arm’, the object of scorn is even more nebulous, since the words are all but unintelligible. The singer is clearly fuming – but about what? On these songs, Malkmus’ most passionate delivery is reserved for non-sequiturs, crudely spitting out “Screw you!” to no-one in particular. It’s an attitude which anticipates the comedian Pierre Bernard, who vents his anger over esoteric topics from an easy lounge-chair, declaring himself “comfortable and furious”.

This is the kind of humour Pavement specialises in: matching hummable tunes to indecipherable words, singing with desperate urgency while plonking an opaque series of nouns together. The goal is to be fervently, yet uselessly, commercial: selling the hell out of oddity. All of the high-energy numbers on this album are ironically revved-up and rocking; Malkmus has referred to the ascending line of ‘Flux = Rad’ as a “Nirvana signifier”. In this track, he proves that he can “do” grunge at the drop of a hat – and then move on. The ability to summarize Nirvana in a single phrase isn’t necessarily a dig, but it shows that Malkmus’ attention span for rock tropes is limited. Punk anarchy, outsider rock and generational anthems all have their place, but for Malkmus they are musical clichés which don’t need to be played more than once.

The ability to convincingly hold a mood and then drop it is seen throughout the album, where disparate genres are bolted together without covering the joins. ‘Extradition’ thrusts you into the blues before taking a detour into atonal guitar, resuming after a couple of false stops, then returning to the blues and abruptly shutting them off. ‘Grave Architecture’ has a sleepy country opening, but its chorus is twisted by spasms of the rote anger we hear in ‘Serpentine Pad’. Even the fullest mood piece on the album, the beautiful ‘Father to a Sister of Thought’ – which has the aura of a late Western and a rich pedal steel guitar – is truncated by muscular chords, which suggest that the band is getting ready to restart ‘Rattled By The Rush’.

Malkmus has described the album as getting from one “cool idea” to the next: in other words, keeping the journey interesting while connecting the dots between sweet spots. This works, largely due to the dryly ridiculous rhymes which are his lyrical signature: for instance, pairing “latent causes” with “sterile gauzes”, or shoving in a nonsense line like “They’re soaking up the fun or doing blotters, I don’t know which” to accommodate the striking image “a swollen daughter in a sauna playing contract bridge”. Even the most eccentric turn of phrase can be standardized by rhyming. The title Wowee Zowee recalls David Bowie’s notorious decision to name his son Zowie – a gesture of both hubris and humour. Making incongruous rhymes is about forcing a duplicate version of a one-off, no matter how contrived or misshapen the results are. Malkmus has always made it clear that any lyrical “content” is merely a pretext for poetry – his impossibly stuffed sentences show the concessions he’ll make to rhyme and metre. On ‘Father To A Sister Of Thought’, he even goes to the lengths of inventing a new phobia, the “ugly steeple fear”, to go with “I’m too much comforted here”. A hopped-up song like ‘Best Friend’s Arm’ is a spoof of punk rock, but also an opportunity to cram as much arresting babble as one can into a verse – most of it on phonetic grounds.

However, if meaning and passion are mocked on this album, so is cynicism. The beginning of ‘Half A Canyon’ conjures images of a vast aridity – each note seems to soar across a vacuum, and Malkmus’ vocal is more parched and strained than ever. But out of this deadly, defeatist energy, rock somehow rejuvenates itself: gradually, the sparse chords move closer together to form an undeniable hook. Perhaps this riff is an homage to Sonic Youth, but its jangling momentum is enough to sustain a six-minute epic, propelled only by cries of “Allez! Allez!” For a band allergic to the notion of progress or any kind of forward motion, it’s a major achievement.

Wowee Zowee was recorded at a very prolific time: Malkmus was so enthused that he would whip up snippets of new songs between takes, later cannibalizing them for other tracks. This resourcefulness is what enables him to flirt so energetically with decay. The album positions itself as the logical end-point of rock, with its multiple genre parodies and ironisation of melody. Its pairing of singalong tunes with incomprehensible lyrics seems designed to frustrate the listener. But the flipside is that each track is so unpredictable – ready to change pace on a dime, to pierce a mood with a dissonant chord, to throw in a blast of killer hook without context. This is as expressionist as rock can get, with every impulse, hesitation and afterthought recorded for posterity. On their final, disappointing album, Terror Twilight (1999), Pavement would show us what real apathy sounds like: a tone-controlled drone, with none of the springy vibrancy of the earlier work. But Wowee Zowee continues to surprise with the intoxicating silliness of its rhymes and its faith in music’s ability to regenerate itself.

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