Good looks, fierce intelligence and raffish insouciance are no palisade against heartache. At least that's the message singer Stephen Malkmus conveys on Pavement's sweeping, majestic "Terror Twilight."
If "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" (1993) was Pavement's paean to the rock 'n' roll life, "Terror Twilight," the band's fifth full-length album, is its reflection on growing up and getting hurt. Malkmus' lyrical explorations have long perplexed and delighted both critics and fans, and on "Terror Twilight" his words remain perplexing and delightful. On "You Are a Light," Malkmus sings, "Watch out for the gypsy children in electric dresses/They're insane/I hear they live in crematoriums/And smoke your remains." Later, in "The Hexx," he compares architecture students with virgins. These tongue-in-groove turns of phrase are standard fare for Malkmus. What's new, however, is the emotional opacity of his songs. On the wistful "Major League," he sees an old flame at a baby shower. "Bring on the major leagues," Malkmus sings over and over, his weary words invoking the messy reality of adulthood rather than a burning desire to headline a double bill with Smashing Pumpkins.
Pavement's signature animated yelps, clarion lead lines and false starts are all evident on "Twilight," but the production -- and the musicianship -- sounds better and more evocative than it has in the past. Produced by Nigel Godrich (Beck, Radiohead), the album is a wide-ranging wonder, as polished and refined as the band's early efforts were rough and jagged. The 24-track recording -- a first -- allows revelatory variations and subtleties, audible in everything from the back-up singing to the overflowing tones of the band's duel guitars. Malkmus and Scott Kannberg have honed their ax work, and bassist Mark Ibold has a fuller, more buoyant tone than he exhibited on any of the band's previous efforts. Together, their music unfolds and spills outward, with the melodies unfolding exponentially.
Pavement has always had a knack for the perfect pop hook. On "Terror Twilight" the band expands their repertoire, playing with Kinks influences that translate into mod-tinged delights like the sing-songy "Billie" and the hard-pop edges of "Cream of Gold." "Folk Jam" employs a nervy banjo, and the album's best song, "... And Carrot Rope" has more twists and turns than a spy novel.
Long ago -- sometime after "Crooked Rain" -- Pavement evolved from Next Big Thing to Witty Fringe Phenomenon. "Terror Twilight" feels like an attempt to get past that pigeonhole in a substantive way, examining romantic woe and complicated adulthood with restrained seriousness and pointed compositions. And it works: For the first time since 1993, all the elements -- songwriting, musicianship, lyrics, production -- are clicking at once. The slackers from Stockton, Calif., have grown up a lot since their early, kiss-off anthems like "Box Elder," the surprise is that they've done so with such grace and style.