Reviewing their album Wowee Zowee in Rolling Stone, critic Mark Kemp accused Pavement of being “simply afraid to succeed.” Kemp pointed to the overbloat of the album’s 18-song tracklist and its seeming aversion to sounding anything like the releases that made them popular in the first place. And maybe he had a point; even this reviewer, who counts Pavement among the greatest bands of the 1990s, has to concede that some of Wowee Zowee is less than stellar.
But to understand why some perceived Wowee Zowee to be a let down, and more importantly why that was a misguided notion, one must dial back to Pavement’s 1992 debut Slanted and Enchanted, an album crafted in the shadows of the San Joaquin valley, and which circulated via homemade cassette tapes before its eventual commercial release. These facts alone help paint a picture of the kind of anti-corporate ideals Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg envisioned for their project, but the stylistic vision of their debut album provides the best frame of reference.
Before “Cut Your Hair” and before their alleged success-anxiety, Pavement had fourteen raw and unsophisticated songs that sound for all the world like the people behind them had no serious visions of grandeur. Malkmus as lead vocalist is an inherently abrasive and quirky decision, bolstered with his nasally wailing and irreverent lyrics. Behind him is the thrum of his gritty, overdriven guitars that alternate deep fuzz and lackadaisical noodliness, riding atop the jaunty rhythms of Kannberg on bass and Gary Young on drums.
Although Pavement shows some poppier sensibilities here, especially on the infectious “Summer Babe (Winter Version)”, the band seem to be conscious of it. They hold their own hooks at arm’s length by endowing them with lines like “I saw your girlfriend, and she was / Eating her fingers like they’re just another meal.”
It is now hard to imagine an alternative rock landscape where these qualities—irony, irreverence, oddball sentiments, noisy guitars, lo-fi production techniques—don’t define any number of a slew of bands, especially ones from the American northwest. In the decades since Pavement came and went on the cultural map, innumerable success stories have followed this formula.
Pavement was the product of an anti-corporate, rebellious time and place. When those ideas began to be in vogue, Pavement defied themselves and made something weird (Wowee Zowee), but not because they were afraid of their own success. Rather, it seems that they never intended to gain the kind of success Kemp alludes to, and in fact thought the most successful move would be to subvert themselves.
Slanted and Enchanted is a beautiful antecedent to all of that: a shameless, ironic, rollicking, and downright strange album that swings for the fences on all fronts, mainly because the artists were liberated from the conventional motivators of fame and fortune. (Malkmus later cited it as the best Pavement record, because it was “less self-conscious.”)
There’s a lot of merit in his self-evaluation, truth be told. Perhaps albums number two and four, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Brighten the Corners, will be better remembered as the quintessence of Pavement albums (due to their still-amazing singles “Cut Your Hair”, “Shady Lane”, and “Stereo”), but the simple math of it is that Pavement would have never been Pavement without their initial, out-of-the-spotlight genesis on Slanted and Enchanted.