Old to begin: Pavement’s underrated ‘Brighten the Corners’ turns 25
Brighten the Corners feels a bit like the forgotten Pavement album. Slanted & Enchanted was the brilliant low-fi debut; Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain proved they could clean up well and was full of 120 Minutes earworms and snarky arrogance; Wowee Zowee was the weird one, too long but a favorite among the heads, devotees and the band's percussionists; and Terror Twilight was the last burning embers, an album made with an in-demand producer (Nigel Godrich) that felt like the start of Stephen Malkmus' solo career. Brighten the Corners was the other one.
As many others have said, Brighten the Corners also seems like it should've come immediately after Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. It's the more obvious follow-up, coming in at a tight 45 minutes with just-polished enough production and loads of hooky songs with earworm choruses, while still maintaining that shaggy dog feel you want from Pavement. The wig-out that is Wowee Zowee -- a spotlight draft dodge that felt like an intentional shot in the foot -- may just have been the kind of One Last Wild Night that leads a group, who were all hovering around 30, to make a relatively sober but still wonderfully loose record like this.
Feeling like it was time to straighten up and fly right, respectively, the band did something they had never done before when making a record: rehearse ahead of time. After two weeks of working out the music, they headed to Mitch Easter's home studio in North Carolina to record with Bryce Goggin who had mixed Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Easter, who co-produced the first two R.E.M. albums (among other things), ended up working with the band for a week while Goggin was away but he brushes off the co-producer claims that circulated at the time. "I don’t remember what the credits are," Easter told The Fader in 2008, "but that was a very much band-produced record, if not a co-production between them and Bryce." After recording in North Carolina, the album was finished in NYC with frontman Malkmus finishing the lyrics and the band recording vocals.
Speaking of, Malkmus' lyrics were so famously inscrutable that a misheard lyric seemed just as valid as the real line. Up until a couple years ago I thought the chorus of "Embassy Row," a song set loosely in the world of folks with Diplomatic plates, was "In the netherworld of foreign bees" which is wrong, but I've sung it that way so many times the actual line -- "foreign feeds" not "foreign bees" -- feels inferior. (I continue to sing it my way.) There was actually a lyric sheet with Brighten the Corners -- a hard to read one, of course, with no punctuation or line breaks. They didn't want to make it too easy.
By 1997 there were plenty of message boards, usenet groups, and Geocities pages that were devoted to dissecting Malkmus' lyrics syllable by syllable, decoding obscure references and looking for meaning. "No not me, I'm an island of such great complexity," from "Shady Lane," seems like an eye roll from Malkmus on this subject. I'm not sure how much meaning was ever to be found, at least on a song level, but Malkmus packed his creations with endlessly memorable rhymes, puns, bon mots, and clever turns of phrases, and strung them together so they just flowed and felt right.
"Each word, each end of each couplet, especially towards the end, leads into the next idea," Malkmus told William Goldman in SPIN in regards to album opener, and Geddy Lee-inquisitive single, "Stereo," saying "It’s just kind of free-associative, relating each word to the next word. It just came off the top of my head, the way freestyling does." He told Relix around the time of Pavement's 2010 reunion, "Even at the time, it was kind of, ‘I don’t really know where it’s coming from and don’t want to ask,’ It just comes, usually. The early stuff, I wouldn’t even know how it got written or why it did.”
On Brighten the Corners, SM's wordplay was especially dense but also wonderfully nuanced. Every song has at least a couple highly quotable lines, if not five, that have the ability to exist beyond the world of the song they're from and rattle in your brain for decades: "Praise the grammar police, set me up with your niece" ("Transport is Arranged"); "A voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn't teach me to love" ("Transport is Arranged" again); "You've been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life" ("Shady Lane"); "One of us is a cigar stand, and one of us is a lovely blue incandescent guillotine" ("Type Slowly"); "There's no coast of Nebraska" ("Starlings in the Slipstream"). And "I'm sick of being misread / by men in dashikis and their lefist weeklies" (from "Embassy Row") feels eerily like a preemptive strike against Alex Ross' much-circulated New Yorker article from May 1997.
Lest you think it's all about the words, Brighten the Corners is a very satisfying album, musically, with some of the band's most nuanced playing, hookiest riffage, most memorable choruses, grooviest basslines, and tastiest noodles."They had a great way of working, which was quasi-jamming but not just pure jamming," Mitch Easter told The Fader. "They would just play together on a song that everybody kind of had an idea what the chorus was, but every time they played it, it had a different feel. Things changed a lot from one time to the next and the idea was that you just recorded everything and they would just pick the good one and that became the version....Usually it’s just totally noodling jamming or it’s just really structured, and they were just right in the middle."
That split-the-difference vibe is what makes Brighten the Corners work so beautifully. You get a tidy little pop song like "Shady Lane" that ends with a minute of mellow jamming," while "Transport is Arranged" makes room for pretty mellotron strings and doomy riffage. Then there's the ragged soloing and wild yodeling of "Old To Begin," another one that starts off placidly, and "Type Slowly" that is on the verge of collapse and features some of the album's loveliest, loosest playing. There's also two great, very catchy songs from Spiral Stairs: the Petty-esque "Date with IKEA" and "Pasaat Dream" that kept comparisons to The Fall alive.
Nearly every song presents a veneer of order and beauty while just underneath the chaos is being held at bay by scotch tape. But it never falls apart. The result is an album that's like a blend of all other Pavement albums, witty, mischievous, thoughtful, melodic, sometimes pretty, sometimes skronky, sometimes loud, and often sublime. On release it was seen by some as a welcome return to hooky indie rock of Crooked Rain, and by others a little too mature, but the years have been kind to Pavement's fourth album. Those worlds collided and left us with a lovely shady lane of a record.