Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement by Rob Jovanovic

(Justin, Charles & Co.) $19.99

The general problem with books about bands is that they struggle to assert a group's definitive identity by way of a single fan's perspective. Everything rests on the author's ability to frame the discussion with his own enthusiasm and insight, while carving out a version of the band narrative that rings true (as opposed to is true) for posterity. All of which would be fine if we weren't talking about rock bands--whose real stories are notoriously narrative-resistant in the first place--and rock writers, who are typically more interested in cramming their subjects into the confines of a convenient angle than in examining the contradictions that make them fascinating.

The best rock bands are founded on contradiction; they're simultaneously intriguing and inscrutable. You'll never know, for example, what the real dynamic between Morrissey and Marr was, but that doesn't stop you from endlessly inventing and revising your own version. Few bands were ever less scrutable or more intriguing (or greater, as it happens) than Pavement, whose story contains several books' worth of fascinating contradictions. Such knowledge makes the mediocrity of this book all the more frustrating.

The specific problem with Perfect Sound Forever is that author Rob Jovanovic, a usually sound British rock journalist, fails to advance any but the tritest argument about the greatness of this unstoppably great band. They were smart (duh). They were slack (ugh). They were obscurant. They were classic. They had a collision with the mainstream. Then, they broke up. It's the same reading of Pavement that has been offered by countless magazine articles for the past 15 years--in fact, a huge chunk of the book consists of actual quotes taken from those articles. There appear to be new interviews with all the band members except Stephen Malkmus (including the always entertaining original drummer/freak show Gary Young), but no effort is made to differentiate primary sources from recycled ones. Each LP is given a summary track-by-track rundown, then pushed aside. The effect is that of a super-long Mojo article, minus the thoroughgoing attention that Mojo typically provides. For all its devotion, the book feels lazy.

Every chapter and sub-chapter is headed with a different lyrical epigram, like "Range Roving with the Cinema Stars" for the section about the band's stint on the Lollapalooza tour of 1995. (The title of the book is a reference, too.) It's a cute conceit, but after the first few dozen examples, it begins to feel like Jovanovic is looking for excuses to deploy his knowledge--often at the risk of violating the suggestive nature of the lyrics by over-literalizing them. What's worse is that while the author is busy chopping the band's history down into cleverly titled fragments, he misses countless opportunities to dissect the received wisdom that attends the familiar episodes. His quintessentially British attitude toward the band's lack of conventional ambition is alternately to scold them and to pretend he's one of them: "Pavement had been contrary and produced the album they wanted. It likely sacrificed their chances of a lucrative deal and a quick buck, but so what? They didn't want that in the first place." In both cases, he squanders the opportunity to look a little more closely at the art behind the project. As a result, the band members who do participate, particularly guitarist Scott Kannberg, are hung out to dry when the story gets more complicated than Jovanovic is willing to face.

By the time of Pavement's fifth and final album, Terror Twilight, things were tense and ugly within the band, a dynamic complicated by the addition of a famous producer (Nigel Godrich) who so clearly favored the main songwriter that he didn't even know the other guys' names. This is a classic rock-band trope, and when classic rock-band tropes arise it's crucial for a band biographer to zoom past the easy observations ("Much of the perceived 'maturity' on the album could be merely due to the slower pace of many of the tracks"; "Indisputable, though, is that much of the old truculence simply vanished, with an easy listening vibe threatening to take over") and ask harder questions. Jovanovic doesn't shy away from suggesting that everyone was unhappy, but he fails to zero in on the real issues at stake.

Had Malkmus' songwriting skills legitimately outgrown his band's musical ones? Had Pavement's model of not taking things seriously run its course? Was Terror Twilight a glorified solo album? And so on. The absence of Malkmus quotes in the text threatens to make his former bandmates sound like jealous ex-lovers with regard to the split, while the central figure becomes irretrievably enigmatic and petulant. And through it all, the author makes the mistake of not having a theory of his own about the causes of the band's demise. No theory and few facts--what we get instead are fractured snapshots of a colossal bummer of a final tour and useless musings along the lines of "These shows, like the recordings they showcased, veered from the ridiculous to the sublime." Cheers, mate.

What's good about Perfect Sound Forever is what's good about every book-length treatment of a band you love: You get to spend a few more hours with them, even if that time is filtered through an author whose style you don't particularly care for. The graphic content is heroic: tons of photos, set lists, tour books, reviews, correspondence, and even the technical and hospitality riders from the final tour. In all fairness, I may be projecting my own (imaginary) Pavement book onto Perfect Sound Forever, and needless to say, mine is a lot more insightful. Jovanovic was screwed from the outset. Writing a book about this band--of all bands--is a sucker bet, since most people who are likely to buy and read it are certain to be doing the same thing I did: imagining how much better their Pavement book would have been. In some ways, it's unfair to the author who did the work--half-assed or not. But then again, "List the qualms you have and if they stick...."