Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creed Edition

It’s telling that on one of Brighten the Corners’ several unreleased outtakes (“Cataracts,” to be exact) you can hear the rest of the band telling king shit Stephen Malkmus that he “looked bummed,” towards the end and he sneers back, “No, I’m happy.”

There’s an underlying current to Pavement’s underappreciated and debatably last great album, Brighten the Corners (sorry Terror Twilight apologists), that this is the band retiring on the deck of a yacht, sailing off into the sunset. Filled with some of their sharpest melodies nestled in the earthy hues reflected on the cover and introspective in every word that comes from the headmaster’s mouth, there’s certainly a question as to what exactly Pavement was at this point: the gilded indie-pop hubris that shouldered-up Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain to blissful breezes or the shape-shifting rec-room funhouse that was Wowee Zowee? Unsurprisingly, Brighten the Corners was the natural combination of the two, only the band seemed to float by it all in slow-motion, maudlin to the point of drowsiness in most cases. The punchy “Stereo” was the band clad in Lollapalooza-wear, an amped-up “Cut Your Hair,” chucking in snarky lines about Geddy Lee that lent the song a tongue-and-cheek approximation of where Pavement stood on the indie totem pole. Were they the inverse, abstraction of a dinosaur band, playing Slanted and Enchanted to a bloated arena-conditioned population?

Looking back, “Old to Begin” explains it all when Malkmus quips, “Embrace the senile genius/watch him re-invent the wheel.” On nearly every song, he questions his relevance and mopes triumphantly through first-person accounts of his boredom. On Brighten the Corners, more than ever before, the scene was set for Malkmus, the semi-tortured guitar hero, as he and the band tangle in amorphous, albeit gloriously messy, jams. Whether it was the limping melltron cream of “Transport Is Arranged” or the drunken shanty of “We Are Underused,” the band returns to those patented slacker solos while giving a quick lift of the rock to see what’s bizarre underneath. Re-listen to the icy calm of “Blue Hawaiian” for proof of the latter. They drop the repetition of the Fall for the angled-blues choogling of the Groundhogs in “Embassy Row” and adopt folky prisms on “Fin,” a finale that may have been intended as their swan song.

Whether or not Malkmus was lackadaisical or just burnt-out during the making of the album, the extra material bundled here shows that he was eager to get out the door but also eager to explore the band’s range. Many of the bonuses are precursors to Terror Twilight; even a few of the demos for that album are found here, proving that record was composed of mostly healthy scraps. The best, though, are the band’s playful covers, doing Faust, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Clean and (finally) a dead-on Mark E. Smith impression on the essential “The Classical.” Sure, Malkmus didn’t need the rest of Pavement to fuel his whimsy further, but there hasn’t been an album since this period (in Malkmus’ solo oeuvre) that comes close to the precision and spontaneity he balances on Brighten the Corners with great ease and effect. And no matter how begrudgingly it was made, it was a band effort.
Kevin J. Elliott