Certain Songs #1500: Pavement – “The Killing Moon”

Album: Major Leagues EP
Year: 1999

Fate, up against your will

So, way back in 2015, I pointed out that Echo & The Bunnymen’s original version of “The Killing Moon” wasn’t just Echo & The Bunnymen’s greatest song, but an absolutely enduring classic that will forever be counted among the greatest rock songs of not just the 1980s, but all-time.

And as such, should be totally uncoverable. Especially by Pavement, who you would think would automatically rob “The Killing Moon” of the epic, er, epicness that made it so epochally epic.

And in fact, it was precisely that assumption that led me to dismiss it when I first heard it on Pavement’s final EP, Major Leagues, which was clearly scraping the bottom of the barrel by mixing a pair of Spiral Stairs songs recorded with Gary Young with a couple of covers recorded at the BBC in 1997, one of The Fall’s “Classical” and “The Killing Moon.” And in fact, if the Major Leagues EP was a nostalgic wave back at Pavement early days — The Fall! Gary Young! — then the addition of “The Killing Moon” was even more incongruous.

And I’ll be honest: while I enjoyed their piss-take on R.E.M.’s “Camera,” — where Malkmus proved his fandom bona fides by making up his own words just like we all did — it only worked for the conceptualization. I didn’t really care if they deconstructed “The Killing Moon.” But luckily, neither did they: Pavement’s version of “The Killing Moon” was as straightforward and as serious as you could have hoped for, and — here’s the key — played completely to their strengths; somehow turning it into a cover I love nearly as much as The English Beat’s (R.I.P. Roger) take on “Tears of a Clown” or Hüsker Dü’s titanic take on “Eight Miles High.”

And so while the original version of “The Killing Moon” was a midtempo-almost-bordering-on-speedy anthem featuring strings and guitar overdubs, Pavement slowed it down, way down, and pared it down to the basics, instrumentation-wise.

Stephen Malkmus knew two things: he wasn’t as good of a singer as Ian McCullough, but he was a better guitar player than Will Sergeant. And so after he, Steve West, Mark Ibold & Scott Kanneberg establish their slow, stately groove, he knocks off a gorgeous psychedelic guitar solo before even singing a verse, which is dreamy at best, a state he takes right into the initial chorus.

Fate
Up against your will
Through the thick and thin
He will wait until
You give yourself to him

And here’s the thing: the combination of the slow groove and the languid singing makes the gap between “fate” and “up against your will” becomes long enough for entire universes to come into being and die off and as he continues, with both guitars playing simple rhythms, gigantic gaps continue to form in the chorus, as if time hasn’t even existed, and somehow you realize that they’ve figured out a low-key path to utter transcendence.

A different kind of transcendence which you might not even notice because he’s kicked into another beautiful guitar solo, somebody — probably Bob Nastanovich — screaming “what!? what!? what! whooooa!” as if he’s trying to bring the song back down to the real world. But as the guitar solo continues and collapses upon itself, it’s already too late, isn’t it? We’re now all riding with the killing moon world without end amen.

And so it goes.

Another verse.

Another chorus.

A third guitar solo — which starts a bit calmer, but quickly wraps around itself all the way down — after which Malkmus quotes lyrics from my least favorite songs from Ocean Rain, “Thorn of Crowns” and “The Yo-Yo Man,” before launching into the extended chorus coda, upon which he sings that chorus an infinite amount of times and every single time his voice cracks on “will-hill” and “un-til-hill I die and am, stuck forever in time with nothing to rescue me. Except, of course, that this is still a rock song, for fuck’s sake, and here come a pair of distorted guitars swelling swelling high enough to grab me and deliver me to the other side.

Whereupon I listen to it again.

“The Killing Moon”

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