I’d call Terror Twilight a miscalculated move – the kind where you say “Check” proudly and as soon as you lift your fingers off your queen, you realize you’re in the firing line from the enemy’s knight. Pavement was always too odd to be accepted in America, so when more popular bands across the Atlantic started namechecking them (ie. Blur), they got enough recognition to play in the major leagues (pun intended). The thing is, they don’t belong there.
Firstly, there’s the complete band-producer mismatch. OK Computer was the Surfer Rosa of the 90s – following its success, everybody wanted Nigel Godrich to produce for them like they did Steve Albini (including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, the Strokes). But the thing that people don’t understand is that Nigel Godrich (like Steve Albini) has exactly one move – albeit a good one. He’s good for bands that a) are Radiohead or b) want to sound like Radiohead (see: Beck’s Sea Change) or c) Radiohead wants to sound like (see: R.E.M.’s Up). The “OK Computer tricks” that Malkmus mentions in an interview before Terror Twilight’s release are just that – tricks. The brief drum explosion and synth fadeout that open “Spit on a Stranger” — and subsequently, the album as a whole — is supposed to draw your attention, but that’s something that they never needed to bother with before. The closing sounds of “Major Leagues” are equally superfluous, and I’ll take the single edit over it any day of the week (something that you’ll rarely hear out of my mouth) because it drops those pointless ten seconds and as a result, the song feels like it could loop with itself for eternity. Oh, Jonny Greenwood shows up too, something you wouldn’t know if you didn’t have the liner notes or the internet because he’s delegated to harmonica in a rather blasphemous use of one of the greatest guitarists of the 90s (though it’s not like his playing is exactly suited to their style anyway).
More importantly, the band’s songwriting just ain’t what it used to be. A lot of these songs are its parts instead of being their sum; ideas that have been shoved together so that the total length resembles a song — a stark contrast to the days of Wowee Zowee where they would’ve just said “fuck it” if they couldn’t make a whole song out of it and moved on (see: “You Are A Light” and “Speak, See, Remember”). Worse, Malkmus’ words — for me, one of the reasons why they were the bestest band of the 90s — just don’t hit the way they used to. A clever “Button the strippers” line gets derailed by the rhyme right after (“and quarantined nippers”), and there’s no real emergency when he sings “I have to die on Sunday!” In the middle section of “Speak, See, Remember,” he whispers “The terror twilight / It all to get down for it,” but I’m left thinking “So what? What does that mean?” Meanwhile, there’s more focus than ever on choruses; the one on “Ann Don’t Cry” seems to go on for forever and the harmonized and shouted one on “Billie” just reminds me of why they never fit in with the Nirvana crowd, even if people might have wanted them to.
But there’s some good stuff floating around in Terror Twilight. Malkmus’ voice and the guitar flicker the way the best Pavement songs do on opener “Spit on a Stranger,” and the chorus stands out amongst the others here because of the way he sings it (“Whatever you fee-eel / Whatever it ta-akes …”). “Folk Jam” keeps up the quality; everybody talks about the banjo, but for me, the best parts of the song are what happens underneath each time Malkmus holds a note (ie. “The feeling is mutual”), the only time on the album where I’m like “GO GET ‘EM, GODRICH!” “The Hexx” manages to work because its parts are more naturally stitched together than some of the aforementioned tracks, though the best part of the song (from 1:30 – 1:48) is just a repeat of what the guitar does in the most exciting parts of “Grounded.” “Carrot Rope” might not be the best closer, especially if you consider “Fin” or “Fillmore Jive,” but like the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Farewell and Goodnight,” it’s cute in its sentiment, with all the bandmembers waving/singing us their goodbyes (not to mention the jump rope-like bounce during the chorus being rather infectious). It’s more than just an album closer though; “Carrot Rope” is also the end of a career and a decade and it does a wonderful job at that, because unlike most other bands, Pavement had the good enough sense to know when to call it quits and have the good enough sense to keep it called quits.
By and far, my favorite song on Terror Twilight is “Major Leagues.” I understand it’s probably not a popular pick because Stephen Malkmus looks at it with a bit of disdain and people who like Slanted & Enchanted best will probably laugh at its normalcy. Whatever—“You kiss like a rock / But you know I need it anyway” is realistic romance that I haven’t heard since “Gold Soundz.” The best part though is each time Malkmus runs through the last line of the verse and bounds into the chorus—it sounds like he’s running down a hill with his arms outstretched, but he’s ready for the inevitable fall, whether it’s physical or emotional.