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What We Talk About When We Talk About Pavement’s ‘Wowee Zowee’

In 1995, the iconoclastic indie rock band was on the precipice of mainstream success when they released their rambling and inscrutable third full-length album. Twenty-five years later, it might be Pavement’s most complex and rewarding work, acting as a glimpse of the sociopolitical moment that lay ahead.

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A young couple stumbles upon a yard sale by happenstance. At first it appears to be unsupervised: household items piled up ghostlike on an unoccupied suburban driveway. The couple lies on an old mattress and banters flirtatiously, their behavior both childlike and vaguely illicit. A middle-aged man emerges, very much alone. He offers them whiskey, which they accept haltingly at first, and then with greater enthusiasm. The couple and the man haggle gently over various items: the mattress, a television, the stereo. They drink some more and then the man makes a suggestion: Why don’t they dance? They put on music and the couple dances in the driveway. Then, in a moment of charged intimacy, the middle-aged man joins them.

This is essentially the entire action of Raymond Carver’s 1978 short story “Why Don’t You Dance?,” a vintage instance of Carver’s eerie capacity to capture the queasy strangeness of suburban life and freight the mundane with almost limitless anxiety. Wowee Zowee, Pavement’s beautifully weird and digressive 1995 album, begins with a similar tableaux. On the woozy, stream-of-consciousness opener “We Dance,” a couple argues, perhaps about their upcoming wedding. The verbal jousting is a kind of dance itself, playful and testy, the back-and-forth eventually leading to the reassertion of their mutual devotion, though with creeping doubt.

Both Raymond Carver’s story and Pavement singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus’s song place Freud on speed dial. The interest expressed by the middle-aged man in “Why Don’t You Dance?” is pitched with trembling unease between the fatherly and the carnal. The first line of “We Dance” is this: “There is no castration fear.” (No one not enormously afraid of being castrated would ever think to say this.) Both are tiny masterpieces exhuming the psychic disenfranchisement that is such a feature of America’s boundless, anonymous, interchangeable exurbs.

Released 25 years ago this month, Wowee Zowee is an album devoted to such small, Carver-like details. Received by critics with confusion verging on bewilderment when it first hit shelves, it has aged into perhaps the best-regarded release by one of the most celebrated rock bands of their era. It’s also the first to fully exemplify Malkmus’s ability as not only a melodicist, guitarist, and singer of surpassing gifts, but also a literary songwriter of sweeping ambition and empathy. Upon its release, it functionally ended any chance Pavement had of achieving the megastardom of fellow punk-adjacent cohorts like R.E.M. and Nirvana. In retrospect, however, it is an accomplishment of sheer world-building with few peers in the genre.

“No I won’t need someone to let me go / Let me breathe”

Just how weird is Wowee Zowee? To call it one of the strangest records ever made is certainly true but feels somehow insufficient. Its comingling of mournful balladry, spasmodic moodstorms, and droney krautrock is at once disturbing and captivating, even as certain selections seem to court tedium by design. The closest thing the record possesses to a hit is the second track and first single “Rattled by the Rush,” which sounds like a diabolically stoned Steppenwolf outtake and features perhaps the most comically understated stabs at swinging-dick, rock-star bravado ever put to tape (“From the rough / We get par!,” Malkmus merrily brags at one point). Some of the 18 tracks blow by in barely more than a minute while others linger interminably, like a machine no one knows how to turn off. The cumulative effect of its 56-minute running time is something like a night of feverish sleep following an evening of experimental theater.

Pavement found themselves in a peculiar, unexpected position in 1995. Their first full length, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, was an indelible fuzz-rock powerhouse that made them an immediate in-the-know sensation. 1994’s meta-pop masterpiece Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain upped the ante, selling briskly on the strength of a collection of melodic songs which bridged the tricky but inevitable gap between ’90s lo-fi indie and Laurel Canyon jangle pop. MTV was sufficiently supportive and commercial radio appeared open for business. “Alternative Rock” had by this time minted platinum-selling stars ranging from Soul Asylum to the Gin Blossoms, and the genially unruly gents from Stockton, California, seemed as well equipped as any to make the leap to the mainstream.

It goes without saying that Wowee Zowee failed spectacularly to capitalize on the commercial promise of its predecessor, selling barely half as many copies as Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Some journalists speculated, not unreasonably, that it was a conscious, quixotic attempt by the band to shrink their audience. Others wondered whether they’d simply run out of songs or were too slanted and enchanted to bother recording them effectively. No one, save for The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, seemed to particularly like the record. Within the press kit which accompanied the album’s release, Malkmus provided a window into his thought process: “Do you like progress?” he wrote. “Not me. Progress is predictable and predictability involves science. I want nothing to do with science. Life is not a chemistry test.” Do you like progress? Not me. What a stipulation! And for good reason, as things would turn out.

“He foaled a swollen daughter in the sauna / playing contract bridge / They’re soaking up the fun or doing blotters / I don’t know which, which, which…”

America was changing in the mid-’90s and the change was driven by the suburbs. In the November 1994 midterm elections, a wave swept in the first Republican Congress since 1947. At the forefront of the movement was Newt Gingrich, a conservative radical from the leafy Atlanta outpost of Marietta, one of countless fast-growing, affluent American communities that had emerged from White Flight and post-war prosperity. Now those communities had become the cradle of a newborn investor class largely insulated from concerns outside of their pocketbook. The America we know now, characterized by political and racial divisiveness, failing institutions, and historic income inequality was brought to boil in the hellish cauldron of places like these. Wowee Zowee is wise to the mixing of the medicine. It knows some of those creatures that lurk behind the gated communities and the manicured lawns. And they are terrifying.

Wowee Zowee’s fifth track, “Grounded,” is an ominous dispatch from Upper Middle Class USA. Its three-note riff sounds like a four-alarm blaze at a five-car-garage house. Weird things are happening. A doctor jets off on a routine holiday. An unsupervised teenage daughter parties. A prescription pad is making unsanctioned rounds. It’s going to be a very long night, and something bad might happen. Or nothing might happen at all. All of this and more is covered in the four-minutes-and-change running time of a ditty whose debauched landscape suggests “Sister Ray” by way of Stop & Shop. It’s arch and sinister and richly illustrated.

As a lyricist, Malkmus possesses both a seemingly endless flair for catchy epigrams and a wondrous capacity for tightly knotted storytelling which reveals and rewards more and more on repeated listens. There is joy to be had both in the ebullient immediacy of his language and an even deeper satisfaction in unpacking its meaning. Critics, and to an extent fans, have tended to group his writing along the same lines as the ecstatic nonsense of his peer and one-time label mate Bob Pollard of Guided by Voices. Pollard’s approach of alchemizing word salad and nonsense into memorable singalongs is an undeniably effective one, creating a cottage industry by coupling early R.E.M.’s mystery with a classic-rock bravado. But any true close listen to Pavement reveals that Pollard and Malkmus very much occupy alien lanes.

In point of fact, Malkmus’s writing hews far closer to contemporaries like Bill Callahan, Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian, or his tragically ill-fated and recently deceased sometime-collaborator David Berman of the Silver Jews. Like those others, Malkmus is a master of subtle character study and individual vernacular. His lyrics frequently give off the appearance of extreme casualness verging on the improvisatory, but on further inspection can be as carefully chosen as Leonard Cohen’s. “Grounded” is a composition like that: a real-world account of slow-creeping spiritual disease in the tradition of “Tombstone Blues” or “Gimme Shelter.” Few songs more forensically excavate the numbing excess and privilege of a grotesquely gilded moment, what Malkmus recently referred to as “the decadent mess we find ourselves in, the bounty we’ve created.”

“It’s so funny / We went right down to the store”

Even if you couldn’t stop progress, you could still stop Lollapalooza.

They were a well-compensated mid-bill act at 1995’s Lollapalooza Tour, earning as much as $15,000 a set for 28 shows in July and August that summer. Adjusted for inflation that adds up to $711,000 for eight weeks of work. Not Wall Street cash, but not half bad. In its inimitable fashion, Wowee Zowee’s “Brinx Job” is the band’s way of celebrating this windfall: a demented minute-and-a-half jingle which features Malkmus braying: “We got the money!” over and over again against a light funk groove and some unidentifiable raving. It’s an ecstatic elegy to opportunistic larceny and a clear indication that Pavement never conceived of themselves as anything other than interlopers at the banquet table of big music business, or light-fingered Artful Dodger types picking the pocket of big-time concert promoters foolish enough to mistake them for the Smashing Pumpkins.

A long-running juggernaut of the summer festival circuit, Lollapalooza was never the same following Pavement’s participation in 1995. Four years after Nirvana’s breakthrough and 14 months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, the bookers had bet heavily on the linchpins of the alternative nation to deliver at the box office. Sonic Youth headlined and bands with longstanding ties to the underground like Beck, Hole, and the Jesus Lizard were all featured in addition to Pavement. It was in many ways the culmination of indie rock’s long climb to mainstream prominence and the beginning of its return to niche status.

Pavement in particular failed to thrive in front of the teeming throngs of heat-struck youths with sets that took place on cavernous stages during daylight hours. Most audiences proved indifferent to their ramshackle performances while others, like the West Virginia crowd that pelted them with dirt clods, were out-and-out hostile.

The following year’s festival would cater to the increasingly aggro tendencies of its audience with Metallica and Soundgarden headlining. As the pendulum swung back to cock-rock and conformity, Pavement pocketed their windfall and retreated back to the freak scene that had birthed them. But of course, in its way, that was gone too.

“Am I just a phantom waiting to be ripped around on shady ground?”

Wowee Zowee’s 11th track, “Grave Architecture,” possesses many elements of Pavement’s most crowd-pleasing and hit-ready songs. It lilts cheerfully up and down the scale like “Cut Your Hair” and advertises something like the soft-loud dynamics that made “Summer Babe” an instant classic among indie crowds of a certain vintage.

Then, two minutes on, the system breaks down entirely. Pop yields to prog. Destabilized rock. The precariousness of suburban life, in its steady unsteadiness, designer drugs, mood swings, and classic rock radio. The strange mannerisms and increasingly odd behaviors. The abandoned spouse sobbing in her car in front of the 10-year-olds at soccer practice.

Not so much a song as a slow-moving panic attack, “Grave Architecture” is essentially the last off-ramp Wowee Zowee possesses between Pavement making a quasi-straightforward, potentially marketable follow-up to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and an art-damaged, Beefheart-besotted, career-stalling Rubik’s cube.

Twenty-five years later it remains the odd-beating heart of the Pavement catalog, a wing and a prayer, and a prayer a promise. They did what they had to do in the name of no progress. They traveled the path of most resistance.

Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.