Drums flash by and zip…off; a tape loop runs out. A delicate guitar…bass… “However you feel/Whatever it takes….” “Spit on a Stranger,” the smoothest, most organic song in Pavement’s casually extraordinary career opens the spotty, ballad-heavy Terror Twilight. “Ooooh/Waaaa/Like a bitter stranger…” The album is rough going here and there, but for exactly three minutes, Pavement is the most lackadaisically gorgeous band ever, its lead singer a consummate songwriter pointing to the big, girly hearts on his sleeves, his pals behind him translating his every desire. Talk about front-loading an album. But the neatest part is the tune’s holistic aura, its ability to exist of a piece, one hook built on all the way through, “begotten, not made” as they say in the Nicene Creed, making it an example of where this remarkable band has arrived.

Oddly, Pavement has gotten very, very good at this sort of song and seems to have lost the ability to write the cobbled-together tunes that it—meaning mostly songwriter Stephen Malkmus—used to write, the songs that made everyone’s jaw drop at the band’s weird miracle. Terror Twilight is living proof that the older we get, the better we get at some things and the worse we get at others. In some ways, these guys have been saying that all along.

In The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book, Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris’ outstanding 1973 tome on ’50s baseball players great and small, Bill Consolo’s unfortunate natural-talent-to-field-skill ratio is described as follows: “[I]f you are starting out to construct a large cantaloupe, the best thing to have is a small cantaloupe and not a collection of large cantaloupe parts. More often than not the parts don’t fit.” Since 1989’s cryptic, muzzy Slay Tracks EP, Pavement has shown a staggering ability to make great-sounding cantaloupes out of all sorts of disparate parts.

Once the guys in Pavement were America’s low-fidelity all-stars, their songs utter spit-and-baling-wire affairs, yanking together riffs from all over the place, from Alex Chilton’s drunken pop blurts and the Fall’s ironi-billy to Lindsey Buckingham’s basement nightmares and Steely Dan’s sideways pop songs. These Northern Californian liberal artists looked like civilized frat guys, loved Chrome and Creedence and the Clean all the same, and were absolutely alone in their ability to make it all fit together. 1991’s Perfect Sound Forever EP is still indie rock’s most honest album title; as riffs changed into hooks changed into chants all in the same song, the ditties hung together by sheer force of a knowing yet sincere charm. (When these jokers sang, “Bop-bop-ba-da-bop,” they meant it.)

But it was the next year’s Slanted and Enchanted that turned heads, opened ears, and seemed to make all other bands look like rank amateurs for a while there. It was a circus of Fruitgum Company noise, mumbled anthems, and screamed non sequiturs teetering on songs that seemed too miraculous to be true. Slanted may have occasionally buried the lede (within songs as well as among them: The stunning “Here” is the greatest ninth track on an album ever), but it combined the baling-wire tricks with more organic songwriting damn near perfectly. The follow-up EP, Watery, Domestic, was both a tribute to American beer and a wonderful encapsulation of the band’s delicate balancing act.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), terminally underrated by the hipsters, was a complicated and cryptic combo of springtime California love (“Gold Soundz,” “Range Life”) and a stubborn, knowing darkness. (Check out “Stop Breathin”: Not everyone can wring existential despair out of a blown tennis match—”Dad, they broke me/Dad, they broke me.”) The songwriting was even more fully formed, but Pavement’s crucial falling-apart quality was still there in songs like “Ell Ess Two” and “Fillmore Jive.”

Then something broke in the process, and 1995’s Wowee Zowee was a boring mess, an attempt to jump back to the Perfect Sound days with little success. Well-written songs sat next to half-formed ideas, and for the first time, what had once sounded gracefully assembled sounded reckless; riffs and hooks seemed stapled on top of each other where they had once been blended: Apparently ol’ Steve couldn’t go home again. Maybe that was why even the best songs on ’97’s quite good Brighten the Corners sounded so cranky, so grumpy and old and vaguely listless. “Stereo” is clever and all, but Pavement’s archness has always been both a critical component and its Achilles’ heel: It’s a small step from civilized frat guy to asshole frat guy.

But Malkmus can’t stay cranky for long, apparently. Produced by Nigel “I-made-pop-stars-out-of-Radiohead-for-Pete’s-sake” Godrich, Twilight, even in its weaker moments, sounds less fussy than the best of Brighten and Wowee. “Ann Don’t Cry” is pretty melancholy (“The damage has been done/I am not having fun anymore”) and yet sounds less surly than Brighten’s zippier material. Coming to terms with your 30s is a nice thing to hear about. And, as a possible result, don’t look for those baling-wire songs, or at least any that are any good. For every “Spit on a Stranger” there’s a jumpy, incongruous mistake like “Platform Blues.” (Rocking out is always tough for the perpetually arch.) And, while the jerky “Beware/the head/of state/says she/believes in leprechauns” may seem crafty on paper (and, hey, it is pretty crafty) it’s tough to care when the “Folk Jam” to which it’s attached just sort of spins on its mandolin and goes nowhere.

When it connects, however, Twilight shows just how graceful the Pavement boys still are when they put their minds to it. “Major Leagues” is the glorious halfway point between old and new. Malkmus spent some time with his old pals the Silver Jews last year, contributing great guitar and some lousy vocals to the excellent urban-country breakup epic American Water. It shows on “Major Leagues”‘ sparkly guitar and wonderfully half-assed words of love: “You kiss like a rock/But you know I need it anyway.” Graceful time changes plus lyrics just smug enough to stay on the good side of charming equals vintage Pavement.

Speaking of vintage Pavement, Scott Kannberg’s one or two George Harrison-style contributions per album used to provide a bit of spirited guitar gunk. Even his silly throwaways like “Hit the Plane Down” made nice placeholders, breaking up the albums’ all-Steve-all-the-time feel. Malkmus has been long acknowledged as the band’s benign dictator, but Kannberg’s songs were crucial to the previous records. They both reminded the listener of Pavement’s shambling roots and gave the illusion of a team effort, and those are exactly the sort of things that go a long way to combating crankiness. Kannberg has no songs on this one—and that’s a mistake. Twilight is also sequenced oddly: The obvious album closer, “The Hexx,” is followed by “…And Carrot Rope,” a light toss-off that sounds like the ’70s AM staple Malkmus has always been too chicken to write. Although it emphasizes the group’s rediscovered cheeriness, it’s nonetheless a mighty odd way to close the show. Then again, Pavement has always been a little odd. CP

Pavement performs with U.S. Maple at the 9:30 Club on June 19.