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Ability Versus Knack in ‘Heaven is a Truck’”

*“Honorary chairman / I want an award for starring on this planet”

– Pavement

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I’m writing about this Pavement line, but it’s far from being one of Malkmus’ better, in fact I’d even classify it as bad rock lyricism. But the entire artistic mass of the achievement here is actually the mutual exclusiveness of “knack” and “ability,” and herein lies the modus operandi of Malkmus’ muse. And the line is gripping because it’s one of his more personal and broad, with Pavement’s lyrics usually being appealing for their ability to make the minute seem epic, like “Snorin’ when you slumber” or “Stop breathing!”

Also, it’s obviously the very opposite of mental health, an exacerbated face-to-face encounter with an apparently malevolent deity from an artist entirely at the end of his rope. The mind-blowing shamelessness in spouting staggering or alienating quip is nothing new to the Pavement fan here, his honesty is one reason we like him. But what the Pavement fan isn’t used to is the resignation to defeat, only the more acute for being implicit. To me the defining Pavement song, and the defining rock song, is “AT&T”: “Whenever I feel fine / I’m gonna walk away from all this all that,” and it’s this victoriousness that he emits most unflappably, too, in vocal timbre. But it’s interesting to measure the catalogue’s arc, because (not counting the underwhelming swan song Terror Twilight), its final message in “Fin” is “Open call to a prison architect / Send me all your prints ASAP / Stack the walls such that I cannot leave.” Deerhunter say something similar in “Agoraphobia,” and I think it’s actually the auxiliary singer, but short of making a psychological comparison and overarching postulate here, I’m content in just examining Malkmus, who has offered us an incomparable measure of uplifting smart-aleck wit, and would continue to with the Jicks.
My Literatures in English 1800-1900 professor at Indiana University one time got on the subject of translating animals’ cries one time, and apparently some bird’s call translated as “I wish I’d never been born.” In my “Dolby’s Top 214 Albums of All Time” post, I get to Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight pretty quickly there, and I make the comment that this album proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that rock and roll is “sadness” at its heart, because the most effective song musically is “Oh Babydoll,” and so interwoven and imbued is the semantic sentiment with the music that the message is undeniable. I also include some Ted Leo on the list, and along the lines of why this “Heaven is a Truck” line is memorable, I guess it has to do with the phenomenon that as Leo says “Even heroes have to die.” What happens when a hero dies? Well, obviously, it’s bigger news than when some random imp does, that’s just the way it is. This “Heaven is a Truck” line is a hero’s death cry. It’s an open admission of vulnerability and hopelessness; of course it seems like it, pending some postmodernist discourse regarding unreliable narrator, of course. And in dying, he is actually just “being,” not attempting to achieve anything by way of any “ability,” and so he is exhibiting an animal-like honesty more conducive to art, since art is the invisible standing within that ethereal space in between the individual and someone else’s objectives which one might call “success.”
And in fact, it is obviously unreliable — it’s tongue-in-cheek, just like his plea for us to “Stop Breathing,” just like his notification in “Starlings of the Slipstream” that “I put a spy cam in a sorority / Darlings on the split screen.”
But this “Heaven is a Truck” line comes appropriately at the end of the song (and indeed the following song is explicitly about large-scale death, “Hit the Plane down”), and it really makes the listener stop and think a bit, how the final resignation to a lack of any further ability, whether via acting or genuine function, can be so sublimely unifying. It’s a figurative death before the onset of physical death, an invalid lamenting his predicament, convinced that no improvement of it is possible by earthly means, and it’s effective for the very reason of its antithetical attributes to most of Pavement’s discography, rife with yearnings for activity, from which sometimes at times, wild horses couldn’t drag him away.

And so ability is a blessing, something we all hope for, but “knack” transcends quantifiable function, and takes its place in art. Some especially delicate Pavement songs, like “Stare” and “Pueblo,” stand among their best, and this “Truck” denouement is nothing more or less than the tactile manifestation of this soft sentiment.

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“Heaven is a Truck (Eggshell)”

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