Emily Dickinson once opened a poem with “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” More than a century after she wrote the line, it resonated with David Berman, college friend and roommate of Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus. Both an avid cartoonist and a poet himself (and later the singer/songwriter behind Silver Jews), Berman put pen to paper, running Dickinson’s verse through his trademark faux-whimsical filter. The result was a hastily scribbled cartoon captioned “SLANTED + ENCHANTED.”
Below the fateful caption stands a stick figure with X’s for eyes, sparsely outlined in sloppy, overlapping red-pen strokes. The canvas was a coffee-stained scrap of paper from the Whitney Museum, where postgrads Berman and Malkmus worked as security guards. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for trash, but Malkmus didn’t see it that way. While he was away recording what would become Slanted, Berman taped the doodle to a wall near his roommate’s bedroom door. As soon as Malkmus came back, he knew he’d found his album title.
In a way, all of this is fitting. Slanted and Enchanted does not shy away from silliness or sloppiness. It’s the product of two recent college graduates playing in the low-rent studio of a washed-up ex-hippie rocker looking for another shot, and sounds like it. Still, somehow, with Malkmus on guitar, his childhood friend Scott Kannberg (a.k.a. Spiral Stairs) on bass, and the loose cannon Gary Young behind the kit, Pavement wrote a masterpiece.
It helps to have an opener like the instant classic “Summer Babe.” Malkmus’ hazy-and-lazy songwriting is undeniable, but as with most songs on Slanted, this one relies on the rhythm section. Kannberg’s woozy bass slide, one of the album’s more melodic and complex lines, creates a beautiful economy—Malkmus plays only a sustained fuzzy acid rain chord in the verse. Here and elsewhere, Gary Young plays skittering cymbals, thumps and plunks the toms with primitive abandon. His drumming is both sloppy and foundational. Post-chorus, he sounds like he’s playing with one hand, scrambling on his own time, but matching Kannberg’s slide and Malkmus’ wail bit for bit. His tenure in Pavement was short-lived—the band canned him shortly before Crooked Rain, by which point they’d had enough of his non-stop substance abuse and absurd shenanigans onstage. But no discussion of Slanted is complete without acknowledging his impact, and he’s a big reason why “Summer Babe” is so hard to imitate, and so glorious.
The album’s other masterpiece is “In the Mouth a Desert.” As with “Summer Babe,” Lou Reed looms large here; with its slow, sludgy pace and gnawing tone, “In the Mouth a Desert” is maybe the closest thing to Pavement’s “Venus in Furs.” But unlike Reed, Malkmus doesn’t clue us into the nature of his yearning. “It’s what I want,” he states several times, for Kannberg to sing it back to him, but he never tells us what it is. We assess the meaning on a slant: “I’ve been down, the king of it / It’s all we have, I’ve been down,” “Pretend the table is a trust knot / We’ll put our labels down, faith is down.” All the while, Kannberg hits a low, unchanging walkdown; Young blasts the toms Moe Tucker-style; all three band members come together for an irresistible chorus of oohs. Like all the best moments on Slanted, the song has a jagged slaughterhouse beauty. It’s doom-ridden, impassioned, and unabashed pop all at once.
Pavement is, generally, more concerned with the sound of words than their semantic content, and Slanted is no exception. It’s hard to imagine fellow ’90s titans like Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Yo La Tengo or the Smashing Pumpkins choosing a rhyming album title. Pavement did it twice. Still, this is only half the story. The lyrics on Slanted feel less like pure nonsense than found phrases, liberated from some unknown original context and free to assume any meaning. “You think it’s easy, but you’re wrong,” “I was dressed for success, but success it never comes”—how many imagined references might these words hold in train? They’re all suggestion, no detail, but still concrete. Even the avant-garde moments—“No Life Singed Her,” the spoken-word historical monologue on “Conduit For Sale!”—feel like they have a place in some unknown context.
There’s an ebb and flow of coherence and strangeness to Slanted and Enchanted—collages of meaningful phrases strung together by supremely unselfconscious streams, screams, whinnies and yelps against offbeat guitar (“Lies and betrayals, fruit-colored nails, electricity and lust,” “I’ve got a secret for you, I cut your angel in two / I left her bleeding and soaked it with a dry sponge”). These are the words of scattered diary entries, personal manifestos and magazine clippings set to a lurching, staticky musical logic: “Chesley’s Little Wrists” with its goblin giggles, the baffling one-two punch of “Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era” and “Our Singer,” and the clusterfuck that is “Fame Throwa”: three false endings, at least as many rhythm changes, and in one glorious moment, a full piano glissando.
This is Pavement telling it slant.
Slanted and Enchanted was met with near-universal acclaim. But to virtually every critic who heard it, the band members might as well have been Berman stick figures. They refused to show themselves, even after picking up extraordinary blog buzz for their first three EPs. Slanted was their full-length debut, an opportunity to formally introduce themselves to the alternative underground. Instead, they credited themselves in the liner notes as “S.M. + STAIRS + YOUNG”.
The album art doesn’t give the band away, either—we only get a sketch of a spiraling piano overlaid with roughly scrawled words. Below “Pavement” and “Slanted and Enchanted,” the band name appears a second time, with the album title cut off below. The effect is like a verbal conveyor belt, giving the impression that, if not for the physical constraint of an album cover, these words would run on with no end in sight. Here and on the roughly concurrent Watery, Domestic EP, Pavement deployed words where most fledgling rock bands would have used images of themselves.
This marked only the beginning of the extraordinary impression Pavement would leave on rock music. In 1992, neither Malkmus, Kannberg nor Young had any time for bells and whistles; that would come later. Shortly after the release of Slanted, Pavement picked up two new members and replaced the wildcard Young. They got on MTV, shrugged off a chance at mainstream success, made their weirdest music yet, and even brought in Nigel Godrich to produce their final album. All the while, Malkmus continually evolved as a songwriter along with the band behind him.
While Pavement’s style was never static, Slanted and Enchanted stands out. And though it may be their most acclaimed album, it’s arguably the least representative of Pavement’s overall sound. Crooked Rain kept some of the scruff, but on Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight, and even the chaotic Wowee Zowee, there’s a noticeable uptick in production value. Malkmus’s guitar carries a west coast jangle nowhere to be found on Slanted; at times, the band even dips into alt-country territory. It’s easy to imagine Slanted-era Malkmus turning his nose up at this; back then, he was more interested in playing up the syrupy, steel-edged art punk side of his songwriting.
So even among Pavement records, Slanted and Enchanted is an original—scuzzy and hard-edged with timeless melodies hiding beneath the squall, laconic but full of found phrases cribbed from who knows where. Any one of these lyrics could have been borrowed from a doodle. And even in the years to come, Pavement never did get much more direct. But the truth they made for us is just as good.
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Casey is a writer who lives and breathes music. He’s written about it for Spectrum Culture, Grandma Sophia’s Cookies, Plaze Music and WTJU.