STEPHEN Malkmus would make a lousy celebrity. "I thought we'd already have gold records," he confesses, suffering foolish questions about "Terror Twilight," the fifth and latest album by his band Pavement. "When we made `Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain' I thought, `This was pop enough and everyone will buy it.' When that didn't happen, I was like, `Oh well, forget it if that wasn't pop enough.'"
Even though his band is revered(and ripped-off) by the cool kids of five continents and widely ruminated upon by word-herders from People to the New Yorker, Malkmus's speech suffers a common impediment. It sounds unrehearsed. Malkmus hedges and haws his answers. He hasn't mulled or systematically defined his stances into Importance. And Pavement's songs follow his lead. They are not based on the gold standard. They ramble, all laissez-faire and unconcerned about coherence. The man and his songs exude neither high fashion nor controversy. Malkmus admits, over the phone, that he is answering from his bed at home. In fact, his scratchy morning voice has already betrayed him.
Malkmus may seem laid-back, but he's not forthright, exactly. It's easy to discern where his famously obtuse lyrics come from. But the legions who futilely analyze and memorize his lyrics know not to expect simple math. Ponder this cipher from the song "Folk Jam": "Beware/ the head/ of state/ says she/ believes in leprechauns." It's a head-cramper. It's also typical Malkmusing -- either profound or silly or funny, depending. "Yeah, or it can be sad too," Malkmus counters. "Some of the songs are about not too much and there's not much going on -- it's just the individual lines that are creating the overall aura. But then other songs, even if they're vague, I can have a direction for them."
The album's opener, "Spit on a Stranger," seems directed toward the otherwise arid right half of the radio dial (godsped by the production by Nigel Godrich, who's worked with Radiohead and Beck). It is, Malkmus admits, "a vague song but it is specifically about a one-night stand, or what people do when they first meet the first night. People are like, `Oh, it's just about spitting on a stranger,' like I'm talking about a trend. But it's just my idea of kissing someone you never kissed before -- it's sort of like spitting on a stranger. Just a funnier version of saying that, trying to be funny and creative. And sorry." True to that first-time feeling, the song is simple, unadorned, kind of bouncy.
Where on previous albums, Pavement stashed the hooks inside noise, randomness and a healthy disdain for musicianship, "Terror Twilight" is leavened by a weird grace. "It's another album by us that's a little cleaner sounding than the last one, the vocals are a little more in tune." It's hard to deny the band's progression, though. "Yeah, well, there is some. The songs are pretty structured in their own way, and that took some time. And it took some time to rehearse, to even get it to the state it's in. You could talk to the engineers we worked with in our rehearsal room and they probably can't believe it even got so together."
Nor, perhaps, will longtime fans. It remains to be seen whether the new album will inspire a "sellout" backlash. Again. After the success of their first full-length, 1992's "Slanted and Enchanted," collectors of the early singles felt lovelorn. Then 1994's line-drive single "Cut Your Hair" struck fear in underground tastemakers. The next two Pavement albums, "Wowee Zowee" (1995) and "Brighten the Corners" (1997) posed no immediate threat to Hanson's or 'N Sync's hold on the airwaves. But "Spit on a Stranger" is one of several mnemonically engineered tracks on the new disc. "Yeah, I know," says Malkmus, damning the hepster torpedoes. "I made an effort again. `Major Leagues' and `Carrot Rope' were two efforts to be pop." On the surface anyway. A careful listen to ". . . And Carrot Rope" reveals a creepiness that icons like Scott Walker and Ray Davies first smuggled into British pop in the late '60s. "It was a hit in England," offers Malkmus. "Sort of. They're perverts there -- they like using chocolate sauce and feathers and stuff. It's perfect for them."
However, in a death-blow to any future megastar fabulousness, Pavement opted to stay the indie course with its label, Matador, which recently ended its partnership with Capitol Records. "We've always been with them. We signed with them and I like them, the people that work there. I'm not that obsessed with selling records, I'd rather have good karma with these people who're nice. I'm sure Capitol are nice people too, but they've been around a long time and they've already had their Beatles and Beach Boys. So we can be the Beatles and Beach Boys of Matador. It's more fun, you know?"
The apparent immodesty of this statement is tempered by its essential accuracy -- at least in terms of loopy vision. If mere sales figures determined Matador's Beatles, Liz Phair -- with two gold albums to Pavement's zero -- would wear the floppy haircut. But she jumped to Capitol in the split. "I think everyone's happy about that at Matador, frankly," says Malkmus, wasting no grace. "Whether or not her music has any merit, I think she's just a pain in the ass and I imagine she's expensive financially to keep around. So Capitol can do their best with her. It's gonna be an uphill battle, but more unlikely people have had hits." (Don't hold back on our account, Stephen.) But then, a little controversy never hurt sales, either. If Pavement wants to play the Beatles, maybe Malkmus is the Smart One.
PAVEMENT -- Appearing Saturday at the 9:30 club.
* To hear a free Sound Bite from "Terror Twilight," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8130. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)
CAPTION: Smoother Pavement: Scott Kannberg, Bob Nastanovich, Stephen Malkmus, Steve West and Mark Ibold.