In the grand pantheon of classic rock records that exists in every music obsessive’s mind, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted awkwardly stands out for a myriad of reasons. Slanted, which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this month, does not adhere to standard rock tropes. There’s no grand political message a la Bob Dylan or The Clash; there’s no groundbreaking sonic exploration on the level of The Beatles or Pink Floyd; hell, there’s not even the sort of anti-establishment ethos that colored the famed independent releases by Minor Threat or Sonic Youth. Still, without any sort of grand calling card, it regularly places among the Greatest Albums of All Time and is often cited as one of the most influential records ever released. But, without all the trappings emblematic of a Seminal Rock Record, how does it become classified as such?
Music journalists past and present have long been beholden to mythos more than anything and, as far as that arbitrary benchmark is concerned, Pavement had it in spades. Originally conceived as the recording project of high school friends Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg (otherwise known as Spiral Stairs), Pavement’s early releases showed promise, but not enough to prepare the world for their debut. Slanted and Enchanted was not an organic creation; it was put together in the studio by Malkmus, Spiral and 40-year-old hippie drummer Gary Young, whose timing was so bad that the band’s tour manager, Bob Nastanovich, had to help him keep time. By all means, this should have been a foolish post-adolescent misstep by a bunch of overeducated, under-motivated nerds. The weird thing was: it rocked.
Not in the way that you’d think it would, though. From the jumbled opening solo of “Summer Babe (Winter Version),” this was a record rife with languid tempos, fractured guitar melodies and oblique lyrics that hardly mean anything. The DIY ethos of American hardcore was being turned on its shaved head: Pavement somehow made a definitive statement by creating the aural equivalent of shrugging. Malkmus wasn’t tired of your abuse; he just wanted to know if you could treat it like an oil well.
Slanted is often praised for its lo-fi aesthetic amid the overblown, slickly produced alt-rock that dominated MTV at the time, but it became clear that this wasn’t an aesthetic decision made to alienate a potential audience (leave that to the ever-antagonistic Jesus and Mary Chain) or a mode of capturing the effusive brain waves of the band’s resident savant (Guided by Voice’s Robert Pollard, ladies and gentlemen). Despite their threadbare presentation, these cats had traditional songwriting chops hiding underneath all that tape static, a sense of genuine songcraft that is on par with anything produced, ever. Parsing the lyrics, a near-impossible challenge at first, becomes easier over time: “Trigger Cut” has its redemptive salvo of “I’ll be coming back today;” “Conduit for Sale” sounds like somebody vomiting their notes from AP Euro whilst in the throes of a particularly harrowing nervous breakdown; and “Here” is the last dance at the indie rock prom, threatening to break out into revelry but maintaining its solemn sense of space with lines about bad jokes, the elusive nature of success and, of course, the oft-quoted (but never understood) couplet: “Painting portraits of minions and slaves / Crotch-mavens and one-night plays.”
Most of all, though, Pavement taught a whole bunch of kids that you didn’t need to be cool to put out a record. They had bad haircuts, went to good schools, dressed in khakis and gasp didn’t take themselves seriously. They let their friends goofily yell on their records (“No Life Singed Her”), let in snippets of victory lap jams (the “Wounded Kite” jam at the end of “Trigger Cut”) and built in false starts to their songs (“Fame Throwa”). The whole lo-fi thing became a big deal, too. These days, nobody dares let recording quality get in the way of their artistic ambitions. Slanted and Enchanted is a manifesto for the type of people who roll their eyes at the idea of manifestos. An anonymous wise man once said, “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Likewise, Slanted and Enchanted is, at its heart, a document of democratization. Listening to it just lets you know that, fuck it, man; you can do this, even if it’s a little rusty around the edges. As an Italian male was said to say: “Between here and there is better than either here or there!”