Stephen Malkmus writes a hit song: “My baby baby baby baby baby gave me malaria! Hysteria!”

“Stereo,” which kicks off Pavement’s fourth studio album, Brighten the Corners, itself begins with an aural joke on its title. A guitar on the right speaker is answered several times by a bass on the left before both cohere into a floppy but tight groove around which Malkmus weaves his poetic visions. “What about the voice of Geddy Lee?” he wonders. “How did it get so high?” High-school yearbooks, here we come.

Even before it totally kicks in, Brighten the Corners displays improvement over the listless, shapeless Wowee Zowee. Ira Robbins, in the new Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, complains about current bands spending too much time on side projects and compilation tracks, but Pavement has benefited from its year spent contributing to records like Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks and the Brain Candy soundtrack.

According to the spin surrounding Corners, for various Pavement members some of that time was also given over to getting married or settling down with long-term live-ins; the title “Date With IKEA” acknowledges all this tongue-in-cheekily, although the song itself—one of two written and sung by band co-founder Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg—ponders the shattering of domestic objects, staying put, and aging. (Kannberg’s other contribution, “Passat Dream,” appears to be about a Volkswagen dealer rattled by the rush to meet quota.)

None of this—or the stream-of-whatever writing with which Malkmus dominates Corners’ verbal field—exactly adds up to an indie Tunnel of Love. Of course, Malkmus has long toyed with thoughts of settling down—see “Range Life,” in which he imagines life as a semiretired ’70s rocker watching the suburban kids in his neighborhood skateboard, disses Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, and wakes up to find it was all a dream and he’s late for a meeting with Gerard Cosloy. Here, on “Old to Begin,” he goes so far as to evince empathy with boomers—his parents’ generation, more or less, after all—while scratching his head at The Beatles Anthology. In the midst of offering praise for the Liverpudlians’ “senile genius,” Malkmus offers up, on “Shady Lane,” a great definition of the loss of control inherent in parenting: “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life.”

That cheerful acceptance of inevitable growth and decay turns a little sour as Malkmus acknowledges his distance (“I’m an island of such great complexity” in “the muddy peaceful centre of this town”), and in other songs wonders at the lack of “room to grow inside this leather terrarium” and pictures an exchange between lovers: “This slap is a gift, because your cheeks have lost their luster.”

In the context of Brighten the Corners, anyway, the bachelor Malkmus still has plenty of time to play around. “Type Slowly” is a minor masterpiece that begins with his addressing a girlfriend who wakes up too early (“For you morning comes so easy”), veers onto a train of thought that might not have passed muster on Desire, much less Blonde on Blonde (“One of us is a cigar stand and one of us is a lovely blue incandescent guillotine”), and ends on a note that acknowledges his own confusion pretty, er, clearly (“Hit it on the first or second pass/Frozen images respected few”). A slap upside his own head does lead to a moment of self-revelation, on “Transport Is Arranged,” that more than one reviewer has taken as a summation of Corners: “A voice coach taught me to sing; he couldn’t teach me to love.”

The next temptation of the critic is to smirkingly ask, “He taught you what?,” but the real musical news on Corners is how much a few simple touches like Mellotron strokes and continued investigation of vocal harmonies do for Pavement’s sound without carrying the band off into the overly textured snooziness inhabited by Wowee Zowee. Mitch Easter is on board, co-producing and mixing with Bryce Goggin. Their actual credit, though, is simply for recording, and much of what’s going on seems to owe more to Pavement’s own rediscovered surefootedness than any boardmeister’s work. (Certainly, nothing on Corners sounds anything like Malkmus’ fabled “least favorite song” from R.E.M.’s Reckoning, “Time After Time [annElise].”)

Neither does Easter discourage the kids from running all over his studio playground. Kannberg’s fuzzed-out voice track on “Date With IKEA” is about the only thing standing in the way of its status as a potential single, while the first minute of “Embassy Row” moves in the other direction, stacking up languidly beautiful harmonies like a Mamas and the Papas 45. As always, Pavement is buzzed about rock; the album’s final song is called “Fin” not so much in homage to French film as to the marching cadence of Fleetwood Mac’s addled “Tusk” (the second such reference in Pavement history; the sleeve of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain repeated the Mac LP’s thank you to the University of Southern California’s band).

Such nods also play off Corners’ other great theme: a fascination with power and powerlessness most recently reflected in the brilliantly shifting version of “No More Kings” Pavement contributed to that Schoolhouse Rock! tribute, and which splatters all over these songs like a Coke bottle filled with motor-scooter fuel. There’s an unidentified Kaiser in “Stereo,” as well as disputes between “the owners [and] the jocks”; there’s also the lengthy meditation on “Embassy Row,” the hotel life of big cheeses in “Shady Lane,” would-be immigrants denied entry in “Transport Is Arranged,” and in that same song, a god who’s “abstract and bored” with the land of “too much milk and honey.” And should that “shining new path” be capitalized, by chance?

Domesticity and big influence meet on “We Are Underused,” which Malkmus has (jokingly?) tried to pass off as an anthem for bored servants but actually does work up a good head of compassion for the whole scene—the young newlyweds, the guy carving up the roast, and Malkmus, who’s trying hard to figure out which side of the disgusted/amused line he’s on, and why he’s so hung up on the question. He’s still puzzling over it when he issues the album’s benediction: “I trust you will tell me if I am making a fool of myself.”CP