Great Lyricists: Stephen Malkmus

My first exposure to the work of Stephen Malkmus came in 1994, arriving on the back of a shabby romantic entanglement I was just entering into. My newly acquired squeeze was convalescing after the demise of a tempestuous one-year relationship with a guy named Tom who read Tennyson, had a cool fringe and who was a Pavement fan – a fact I was reminded of constantly when I rifled through said girlfriend’s CD collection or the laundry basket which was haunted by Tom’s abandoned ‘Sunny Side Up’ Pavement t-shirt.

Consequently, I had a difficult early relationship with Pavement – primarily because I arrived late to the party.  Tom came bearing exotic fruits; I arrived 4 hours late with a pocketful of lint-covered peanuts. I tried to introduce my own fractured pop into the relationship, to score some cultural credits – notably produce from the ill-fated band Sammy – but the game was lost before it began. I had nothing in my arsenal which could breach this love citadel. I extracted myself from that entanglement nine months later but it wasn’t all for naught because I escaped with my own torturously derived Pavement appreciation, in fact a Stephen Malkmus appreciation, which I used to bedazzle a new beau before that enterprise duly crashed to the ground four years later like a flaming wreck.

As per my Billy Bragg article last week, I am primarily a fan of the early musical energy and projects of Malkmus.  So early Pavement (Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain) and early Silver Jews (Starlite Walker) feature resplendent in my estimation, while Malkmus’ work with the Jicks I find to be a bit hit and miss. Instrumentally, the Jicks produce enough catchy tunes to paper over some thematically barren lyrics but I think it’s safe to say the confluence of musical influences in Pavement – a confederacy of unknowns and equals – kept the lyricism razor sharp.

Like a junkie trying to replicate their first high, it feels sometimes that Malkmus is searching for that elusive brio and wordplay which marked early Pavement albums. It might be a stretch to call Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain concept albums but they certainly hung together with a sort of Weltanschauung; the world of the ‘90s indie slacker, of note here stands the single ‘Silence Kit’ (see below).  In fact Pavement hewed this cultural visage out of a block of dumb slate, establishing their own cultural aesthetic and sound – impudent, hedonistict epigrams drawled or punched out over fractured guitar, time scales and ethereal whistles. Pavement were so elemental, so across the rocks, that any attempts to mimic them caught their epigones stranded half-way between the shoreline and jagged rocks with nothing to show for it but wet pants (like our friend’s Sammy or The Unicorns).

I list here my top 10 Malkmus songs by dent of their lyrical power. Of interest, the lyrics in ‘Range Life’ caused an alternative rock furore for lampooning the Smashing Pumpkins who were described as ‘nature kids’ who ‘don’t have no function’. In fact as the headline act of Lollapalooza in 1994, the Smashing Pumpkins refused to play unless Pavement were given the kibosh, which they were. Anyway, without further ado…


10. ‘Fight This Generation’ (Pavement: Wowee Zowee – 1995)


Lyrics: Ah- God damn the guts and the gore/Nobody’s crying ’cause there’s no one to score for/Come up sweet Randy/I won’t let you fall/What you got to lose?What you got to prove?/Who you gonna screw down here, now?


9. ‘Perfume V’ (Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted – 1992)


Lyrics: Like a docent’s lisp/Like a damsel’s spit/Like a dry gin’s twist (of lime)/Like a poor droll sir/Like a poke’s dull spurs/Like a pastor’s flock


8. ‘Tide to the Oceans’ (Silver Jews: Starlite Walker – 1994)


Lyrics: Wait, for the last man/Last man never had a chance/So he went out behind the shed/And bought himself a little cigarettes


7. ‘Here’ (Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted – 1992)


Lyrics: Painted portraits of minions and slaves/crotch-mavens and one-night plays/and they’re the only ones who laugh/at your jokes when they are so bad/and the jokes are always bad


6. ‘Elevate me Later’ (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – 1994)


Lyrics: Cause you sleep with electric guitars/Range rovin’ with the cinema stars/And I wouldn’t want to shake their hands/’Cause they’re in such a high protein land/Because there’s 40 different shades of black/So many fortresses and ways to attack


5. ‘Silence Kit’ (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – 1994)


Lyrics: Come on, now, talk about your family/Your sister’s curse, father’s old and damned, yeah/Silent kid don’t listen to their grandmother’s advice about a job/Silent kid don’t listen to them


4. ‘Gold Soundz’ (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – 1994)


Lyrics: So drunk in the august sun/And you’re the kind of girl I like/Because you’re empty and I’m empty/And you can never quarantine the past


3. ‘In the Mouth of a Desert’ (Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted – 1992)


Lyrics: I’ve been crowned the King of Id/And Id is all we have, so wait /To hear my words/And they’re diamond-sharp/I could open it up/And it’s up and down


2. ‘Range Life’ (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – 1994)


Lyrics: Run from the pigs, the fuzz/The cops, the heat/Pass me your gloves, this crime
that is never complete/Until you snort it up or shoot it down/You’re never gonna feel free


  1. ‘Stop Breathin’ (Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – 1994)


Lyrics: Nothing gets me off so completely/Than when you put it down/Ten feet down in the ground/Call and response in the negative home

*Originally appear in In Review