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(Credit: Masao Nagasaki)


Pavement and the baffling brilliance of 'Brighten the Corners' 25 years later

Pavement - 'Brighten the Corners'

The best part about Pavement was that they were either the world’s smartest dumb band or the world’s dumbest smart band, and most of the time it sounded like even the members themselves didn’t know which one they were. The line between willful subversion and strange sincerity was extremely blurry for the Stockton, California indie rockers, and that was a major part of their appeal.

It was liberating to scare off the squares who needed “choruses” and “hooks” and “intelligible words” to enjoy their music, but Pavement were always close enough to those things that their output felt like more than just shambolic drunkenness. No other band in the world could confuse or delight in the same way: was this for real? Do they think it’s for real? Do they think I think this is for real?

One thing is for sure: the roots of Pavement were completely genuine. Or they were a complete joke. One of the members called himself Spiral Stairs. Their most essential musical contributor mostly just hit random percussion and screamed into the microphone at random intervals. Anyone who tried to “get” Pavement were automatically on the outside looking in, since “getting” Pavement was more than even the band themselves were willing to invest.

But then you pull back to the facts. Pavement put out five albums in seven years, preceded by a number of EPs. They toured constantly and accepted invitations to perform at major touring festivals like Lollapalooza. They were willing to play the press game, especially after a notable reference to The Smashing Pumpkins in ‘Range Life’ made them the clown princes of the 120 Minutes era of alternative rock. Fans loved the irony of it all, even if nobody could tell which part of it all was meant to be ironic.

The point is that Pavement certainly looked like they wanted to be a real-deal rock band, but they sounded like they wanted to destroy everything that rock music stood for. That included the alternative scene that had become corporate by the time Pavement were themselves starting to find major success. Despite their apparent desire to shun everything commercial, they were also undeniably critical darlings and cult favourites. Billy Corgan might have had a point when he groused that people like Stephen Malkmus were the cool kids who made not trying very hard look awesome, compared to the toil and earnestness of Corgan’s music, that is.

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By the time Pavement were careening into the back half of the ’90s, the group had already lived an entire rock and roll life. The hot start, the underground success, the threats of crossover with tracks like ‘Cut Your Hair’ getting MTV play, the confusing third studio album in Wowee Zowie. So if they were starting to follow a conventional career path, why not put out a more conventional album. Is it the smart thing to do or the dumb thing to do? Or was there even a distinction between the two?

Brighten the Corners is the “conventional” Pavement album only in that it’s shorter than Wowie Zowie, less abrasive than Slanted and Enchanted, and less wickedly wacky than Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But this was still Pavement: ‘Stereo’ is exactly no one’s idea of a traditional opening track, and it only gets more obtuse from there. It must have been strange when some critics and diehard fans clocked Brighten the Corners for being a retread of the band’s greatest hits, considering that Pavement never had any greatest hits to begin with.

If this was, or is, your first interaction with Pavement, then track names like ‘Date with Ikea’ and ‘Starlings of the Slipstream’ aren’t going to sound like a band angling for a more accommodating or compromising style. The music doesn’t help either, which is largely meandering in a way that only Pavement could make sound like a progression. If the faithful were either eager to embrace or likely to shoot down Brighten the Corners for just being more of the same from the band, that didn’t mean that it was going to be any easier for an outsider to connect with the band.

Weirdly enough, it would be an outtake from this era that would end up being Pavement’s most enduring track. ‘Harness Your Hopes’ wasn’t included on Brighten the Corners, but it certainly would have fit that album’s sound just fine. Instead, it was relegated to the Spit On A Stranger EP released in 1999. When it was eventually included on the 2008 reissue of Brighten the Corners, ‘Harness Your Hopes’ still wasn’t anything more than a hidden gem. And then Spotify took over.

Right now ‘Harness Your Hopes’ is far an away the most popular Pavement song on the streaming service, having twice as many streams as their next most popular track, ‘Cut Your Hair’. Basically, it chalks up to the fact that when Spotify starts autoplaying music after you’ve listened to a song, the company’s algorithm favours certain tracks that check a lot of arbitrary boxes. ‘Harness Your Hopes’, for lack of a better way to put it, is algorithmically the most “standard” Pavement song, and so it gets pushed to the front of the queue more often than not.

But ‘Harness Your Hopes’ isn’t a hit. Or it is, just in the modern sense of the word. It works perfectly for a band like Pavement, who could be everything and nothing all at the same time without ever having to worry about how confusing that might have been. Pavement was always a band that thrived in the grey areas of rock and roll, which makes it seem like Brighten the Corners should be their most detestable work.

But instead, it remains highly enjoyable and completely baffling in equal measure. In that way, Brighten the Corners might actually be the platonic ideal of a Pavement album. But then again, maybe it’s not. Whatever you believe, the line between smart and dumb never looked less than important than it did when Pavement were singing about Geddy Lee and going dutch in 1997. That’s either beautiful or stupid, but probably both, and I’m sure Pavement wouldn’t have it any other way.

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