Depending on who you talk to, Wowee Zowee is either one of Pavement's greatest masterstrokes, or a bastard child they sent down the river to their unsuspecting fans. Personally, I'd balk at the idea of labeling it at all, since the album's deliberate obliqueness almost defies categorization. Taken purely as a musical artifact to be dusted off and examined though, Wowee Zowee stands as the purest testament to the warped kaleidoscope of Steven Malkmus' mind. If the previous albums were showcases for Malkmus' peerless ability to ransack the past and mold his own vision from the spoils, then Wowee Zowee simply makes the thievery a little less veiled. For while the album sports its share of true Pavement songs, especially in the near flawless first half, they feel overshadowed by the genre experiments and song fragments which punctuate the album's eighteen-song length.
Despite this disjointed nature, with epics like "Rattled By The Rush" and "Fight This Generation" standing among the pedal steel beauty of "Father To A Sister Of Thought," the Stereolab drone of "Half A Canyon," and the punk burst of "Serpentine Pad," the album doesn't really feel like a mess. That's probably because Pavement wisely pared most of the experiments down to the two-minute mark and let the fully-formed works shine a little longer (the exceptions to each rule being "Half A Canyon" and "Black Out," respectively). As for the song order, I'm not sure if any thought at all went into the album's sequence, though at the same time I'm not sure I could have done any better. After all, the drunken hilarity of "Brinx Job" seems just as good as any other song to bridge the carefully considered works on either side, when one considers that even some of the individual songs on the album (like "Grave Architecture") are in and of themselves cases of conflicting identities.
There are some who see this as Pavement's most deliberately anti-pop album, and listening to a live recording of a pre-Wowee Zowee concert, I became acutely aware of the straightforward work it could have been. Gems like "Black Out," "Grounded" (Malkmus' ode to his doctor and his collection of German automobiles) and an instrumental "Brinx Job", when removed from the clutter of unimpressive tracks like "Flux=Rad" and "Western Homes", show that Malkmus indeed had the goods to deliver an album cut from the cloth of its predecessor, the landmark Crooked Rain Crooked Rain. On top of all that, you've got Scott Kannberg's best Pavement song ("Kennel District"), the soaring guitar work of "Pueblo," and the perfect absurdity of "AT&T." So maybe this was supposed to be Malkmus' retreat from the spotlight, but like say, Nirvana's In Utero, Wowee Zowee ultimately proves that Pavement can hardly even try to make an alienating beast of their music.
In the end, Wowee Zowee is the least immediately accessible work of Pavement's discography, and consequentially one deserving of repeated listens. Somewhere in the chaos of these eighteen tracks is a great twelve-song album, and the joy of the record is finding it. At the end of "Black Out," Malkmus wonders aloud, "Up on the trail high/I need to know/Where does it go/How do I get there/And what will I find?" The winding path of Wowee Zowee may not reveal itself immediately, but it's well worth the journey.