“Pavement Really Weren’t Trying”: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain Revisited

Eli Lee casts her mind back to 1994 and the release of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement's most commercial moment

I’d like to say I fell in love with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain when it came out back in 1994 – that’d give this review real integrity. But I was a twelve-year-old at an all-girls school in London, we sang All Saints songs at lunchtime; it wasn’t going to happen. I discovered Pavement five years later, via the confusing wonder of Terror Twilight, its magic christians and gypsy children in electric dresses. But then they split up and there was nothing more to look forward to, so I went backwards instead and got to know the territory. At some point, in between the circumnavigations into Silver Jews, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo, Smog, etc, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain became cemented as the centrepiece of it all; the one that said things best.

The one that said things best. That’s a strange statement, considering the fact that Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics are notoriously oblique; that his riddling words meant both nothing at all and whatever you could imagine them to mean. And considering that the album’s themes and references are so numerous and disparate – and often entirely obscured. But all this oblique, disjointed poetry added up to a gorgeous, meaningful whole. After the jagged fuzz of Slanted & Enchanted, the blood runs warm in Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It’s a celebration of Pavement’s rogue and shambling spirit; and its brilliance puts it ahead of every other album that captures – or tries to capture – that same feeling.

That first minute or so of ‘Silence Kid’ is a triumph – it was to me then, and still is now. Malkmus didn’t even intend for the opening bars to sound like that – it’s the work of Bryce Goggin, the album’s engineer. The drums announce things, the guitars do that squalling, questioning exchange, the famous riff starts building and off they go. I must have heard it hundreds of times, yet each time, its light-hearted irreverence does what perfect sound forever should do – it recalibrates me. It burrows down, brings back an old, familiar exuberance I’d let get buried.

Silent kid don’t take your pawn shop

Home on the road, goddamn you

Silent kid don’t lose your graceful tone

Apparently Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a concept album about being 28, but it made sense to me my whole twenties. By 2004 (a decade after its release, with Malkmus already well into his post-Pavement career), I was rinsing it on a daily basis. Living in a tiny room on Upper Street, North London, I couldn’t afford, I’d open the curtains each morning and stare at the people on the top deck of the buses that went past. They looked at me, tired; I looked back at them, clueless. Here we were in the real world. I listened to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain all the time because it had all that tiredness and cluelessness, yet it was endlessly joyful, too.

That joy’s in its buoyancy, its wide-open major cadences, the shimmering warmth Pavement slid into after Steve West took over drum duty from Gary Young. It’s in the sound that other publications describe as "classic rock". In the way that at the end of ‘Silence Kid’, you get Malkmus’ admission that he’s “screwing myself with my hand” – that brief fall into fucked-up defiance – and then a few seconds later, ‘Elevate Me Later’ kicks in and it’s back to exuberance. It’s in the way it splinters out like fireworks from the steaming, angry freak-out of ‘Unfair’, one of the few songs on the album in which the subject is disarmingly obvious:

We’ve got desert, we’ve got trees

We’ve got the hills of Beverly

Let’s burn the hills of Beverly!

It’s how, within a breath, the band move from that release of rage towards their California homeland to the laid-back beauty of ‘Gold Soundz’, and pull you right along with it. It’s in the unexpected, sparkling jazz of ‘5-4 Unity’. And then, of course, it’s in the wonderful alchemy of loucheness and yearning in ‘Range Life’. It’s such a warm, loose song, an easygoing pisstake that famously damned the Smashing Pumpkins (Billy Corgan was offended, but Malkmus, of course, had just grabbed any old band or two from the air because they sounded right).

The album became a strange, shimmering tapestry of things to take seriously and things to mock; a combination of optimism, melancholy and smart slacker indifference that was a guiding philosophy for years. It probably still is.

Believe in what you wanna do

And do you think that is a major flaw?

Quicksilver shifts between earnestness and diffidence; endless alterations between soul-baring snapshots of a deep, vast inner life and cocky mockery. And the instinctive genius of the way these both flowed alongside the melodies or jutted out against them made the whole thing glorious.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is arguably the most commercial record in the Pavement canon; ‘Gold Soundz’ being exemplary here. Sandwiched between the rougher Slanted & Enchanted and Wowee Zowee, it’s a glimpse of a band who could have, if they wanted, gone in a mainstream indie rock direction. This was as crowd-pleasing as they got – there are more polished, pretty tracks on it than on any of their other albums. Even so, it also contains its own resistance, most especially in ‘Heaven Is A Truck’ (as Beavis & Butthead asked about Pavement: “Are they even trying?”); and the disjointed dissonance of ‘Hit the Plane Down’. This resistance wasn’t calculated or even particularly conscious. Pavement really weren’t trying. They simply shrugged at external notions of success and got back to making the record. And if the world thought it pretty and embraced it, or thought it ugly and shunned it, so be it.

‘Fillmore Jive’ is where it ends.

passed out on your couch

A song that meanders, dips and builds around a desperate yearning to be asleep; to be submerged in dream. How resonant this hollowed-out, underwater song would sound to me for so many years. When Stephen Malkmus sings “I need to sleep” then begs “why don’t you let me?” I felt it deeply, listening on a Sunday night after another weekend making myself make the most of my twenties. So much of that decade is exhausting; you have to show up, think about

career, career, career, career

about people’s new haircuts, needing credit cards, elegant bachelors (are they foxy to you?), if you’re the kind of girl he likes (cos you’re empty), all those fortresses and ways to attack, your grandmother’s advice – and you need to sleep.

When I asked to write this review, I wondered if an album that shone so brightly in the past would be lost to me now, as the truth is, I don’t listen to it much these days. I thought that at 32 I’d wonder why it’d had such a hold over me five, ten years ago. I was ready to admit that if something so of its time and at such an angle to the world could still steal over me in the same way, it’d prove I was stuck in an extended adolescence or in ex-stoner nostalgia – that I should just admit defeat and become a 90s casualty, giving into wearing nothing but flannel shirts and listening to Brian Jonestown Massacre.

But recent spins have only reaffirmed that its exuberant grace is transcendent. And anyway, you can never quarantine the past.

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