London Brixton Academy

Their last ever show; hold back the tears...

No-one says it in so many words, but the subtext tonight suggests the rumours are true – we are witnessing [a]Pavement[/a]’s final gig. [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a], with inimitable wry flippancy, drops a few hints and makes a muttered valedictory remark thanking us for “coming tonight and for all these years” – but it’s never laid on the table, spelled out, confirmed.

If [a]Pavement[/a] have in fact split, after seven years of prodding our heads and hearts with their singular collision of sound and vision, then their goodbye is characteristically oblique. Like every good [a]Pavement[/a] song (and, let’s be honest, every [a]Pavement[/a] song is good), it’s a scrambled message, a selection of Scrabble blocks without any vowels – we have to decode it for ourselves.

One might expect that were this their last stand, [a]Pavement[/a] would go for broke, but the mood is decidedly subdued. They all look worn out – faces hollowed by a few days’ stubble and lack of sleep – and although they muster commendable gusto for an opening gambit of ‘Grounded’ and ‘Spit On A Stranger’ (during which Malkmus manages to play his guitar behind his head while shaking his arse at the crowd – a feat of some distinction), they don’t seem to be having much fun.

Malkmus shrugs gawkishly, keeps his eyes fixed on the floor in front of him, still uncomfortable with being looked at after all these years. Yet once insanely rasping guitarist Spiral Stairs (aka Scott Kannberg) temporarily usurps vocal duties for ‘Date w/Ikea’, they all relax a bit. A punter suggests they play Blur‘s ‘Tender’ and Malkmus obliges with a modified bar, [I]”Tender is the song/That goes on far too long”[/I], before proffering possibly the greatest trilogy of idiosyncratic pop songs ever written – ‘Cut Your Hair’, ‘Harness Your Hopes’ and ‘Shady Lane’.

Proceedings get progressively looser following a confused five-minute ‘technical-difficulty’ hiatus (“Just like the early days!” sigh wistful punters), and they discard the setlist for a lackadaisical freestyle run that takes them from the precipitous rush of ‘Stereo’ to the dissonant clatter of ‘Conduit For Sale!’. Of course, through it all, the old [a]Pavement[/a] genius stabs through with increasing poignancy. Every [a]Pavement[/a] song is a structure unto itself – a fraught and unstable architecture of sound with sheer drops, treacherous angles, skylights. And, crucially, though Malkmus‘ exemplary verbal dexterity equips them with a cerebral, detached veneer, they are positively electric with emotion. Often imitated, never rivalled. It’s some skill.

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