Stephen Malkmus can’t help it. He starts to sing, and the words emerge with quotation marks around them. ”Honey, I’m a prize and you’re a catch and we’re a perfect match/Like two bitter strangers,” he intones, in his placid deadpan, on Pavement’s fifth album. The band can’t seem to avoid implied sardonicism, either. Are the corny harmonica and banjo bits meant to be sincere — or a mocking comment on blues and folk clichés?
Questions like that have never been easy to answer with Pavement, and the way in which the Ironic Age has slowly rotted away didn’t bode well for them. But with producer Nigel Godrich, who helmed Radiohead’s OK Computer, they calm down on Terror Twilight. While marked by their usual lyric obscurantism, the record has a gentle, unsteady airiness, as if the band wants to lay back but is wary of it at the same time. ”Major Leagues” and ”You Are a Light” are actually sweet, and the band ventures into feelin’-groovy turf in skip-along tracks like ”Speak, See, Remember.” In the relationship obit ”Cream of Gold,” Malkmus even raises his voice, screaming ”Why did you lead me so far?” As Billy Squier once declared — not at all caustically — it’s just emotions in motion.