Sometimes, the best way to get over the past is to embrace it. At least, that’s one way to explain what Stephen Malkmus has been up to over the last year, as he’s given his longtime fans what they wanted for so long with 2010’s Pavement reunion tour and releasing a return-to-form album like Mirror Traffic. While the last days Pavement seemed, at least as legend has it, a burden for him, Malkmus’ work with the Jicks has often come off like a reaction to his previous gig, almost willfully steering clear of Pavement’s in-spite-of-themselves underground anthems by going in less instantly gratifying directions. Although it can be nearly impossible to outrun your history when your earliest material has defined you no matter what else you’ve done since, Malkmus seems to have come to terms with his legacy.
If anything, Mirror Traffic offers evidence that Malkmus isn’t just okay with his golden olden days in Pavement, but that he has finally been able to channel what he did before into what he’s doing now. Coming in the right place at the right time, Mirror Traffic trades on the still vivid memories stoked by Pavement’s victory lap last year without getting so enamored with past triumphs to get bogged down in nostalgia. Whereas his slouchy demeanor usually seems worn out and even diffident, this go-around finds Malkmus rejuvenated and back to his old loosey-goosey self, regaining his knack for creating indie-rock nuggets that are intuitive and easygoing. It might be odd to say this about someone who has been around as long as Malkmus has, but it seems like he’s finally comfortable in his own skin in a way that he never was even when Pavement was at its best.
More so than anything else since the transitional period between the end of Pavement and Malkmus’ eponymous solo debut, Mirror Traffic almost feels like it could pick up where the iconic band’s albums left off and build on ‘em. The free-flowing country-ish rock of “Long Hard Book” recalls the languid, stretched-out feel of Wowee Zowee, while “Senator”, with its beefed-up riffs and Malkmus’ cutting observational humor, might’ve fit nicely on Brighten the Corners. But most obviously, Mirror Traffic takes up for where the low-profile Terror Twilight came up short, with standout tracks like the slightly bluesy charmer “Brain Gallop” and the mellow ditty “Asking Price” as selections that would’ve bolstered Pavement’s uneven swan song. “Asking Price”, especially, comes through like an updated take on a late Pavement composition, only with the knowledge of hindsight, as Malkmus leaves the lines like, “Many opportunities / Come rolling off your lap / I’m not going to bait that trap,” ripe for interpretation.
Yet despite whatever family resemblances you’re tempted to identify, Mirror Traffic isn’t simply a Pavement rehash, though Malkmus’ target audience might find such a prospect appealing in its own right. Instead of being just a blast from the past, the new album succeeds on its own terms, as if Malkmus has gotten beyond whatever mental block there was to fully unpack his Pavement baggage and deal with it. Opening track “Tigers” gets that vibe across right from the start with its brisk, natural melody, as Malkmus goes with the flow when he sings, “Change is all we need / Through and through.” And you can almost hear moments of liberation and transformation when he goes more unabashedly poppy than he has in recent memory on two of the album’s best offerings, the misleadingly titled “Tune Grief” and “Forever 28”, which can’t help but bounce and bubble despite its caustic lyrics. In particular, “Tune Grief” is fuzzy and rough-hewn enough to bring Pavement’s early head-bobbing classics to mind, but can still stand on its own by being unapologetically and indulgently catchy.
Indeed, there’s a pervasive sense to the album that Malkmus is no longer looking over his shoulder at the past or feels saddled by his own mystique, which comes through most conspicuously in the sympathetic tone and come-what-may moods of Mirror Traffic. With a helping hand from the crisp production furnished by another aging ex-prankster, Beck, you could argue Malkmus gives off a more comfortable and open vibe on Mirror Traffic than before, with more years of experience and know-how under his belt to express himself rather than shrouding his sentiments in mystery. An undertone of wistfulness and even vulnerability rings through clearly and strongly on numbers like the giddy, jaunty “Stick Figures in Love” and “No One Is (As I Are Be)”, which is surprisingly tender in the wry relationship scenarios a more mature Malkmus conjures up (“I’m busy hanging out and spending your money / What does it mean?”). But nowhere is his attitude adjustment more apparent than on the poignant lullaby-like “Fall Away”: With a little more of his heart showing on his sleeve than is typical, “Fall Away” has an earnestly sentimental feel to it, as its melancholy chords are matched by the sweetest timbre that Malkmus’ usually bemused voice can muster.
And ultimately, that’s how you can tell how Malkmus has moved passed his past and created something that can be judged by its own standard with Mirror Traffic. If the neuroses and anxiety he masked with Pavement’s idiosyncrasies drove that band to greatness, there’s no such internal conflict apparent on Mirror Traffic. As he tells it on “Share the Red”, “Have you no tears / Have you no heart / You’ve got no idea what sets you apart,” with the implication being that he figured all that stuff out from a been-there-done-that perspective. It’s precisely because Malkmus knows what sets him apart that Mirror Traffic is not simply a heartening, satisfying nod back to the glory days that made him who he is as an artist, but a reflection of what’s possible for him going forward.