Parsing Stephen Malkmus‘ lyrics has been a pastime for indies going on close to a quarter century, so can it be any surprise that his latest album, Wig Out at Jagbags, serves up more than its fair share of lines that beg for reading too much into? Even though the former Pavement frontman claims in a recent Pitchfork interview that lyrics are “more placeholders” for him these days, Malkmus Kremlinologists will have a field day decoding the layers of meaning on Wig Out: Does Malkmus, say, identify with the aging punks on the cheeky romper “Rumble at the Rainbo” and offer a commentary on himself or is he just sending up the scene, as he asks, voice cracking, “What generation punks are we?” Could the Thin Lizzy-ish “Chartjunk”, which details the locker room dysfunction between former Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles and ballhogging underachiever Brandon Jennings, be interpreted as some kind of subconscious allegory about Pavement’s own interpersonal dynamics, particularly when Malkmus sneers, “I put the ‘I’ in team like no other”? And is the first single “Lariat” as close to an autobiography of what made Malkmus Malkmus as there’s ever been, with too many details not to be a first-person-ish sketch about his formative years as an undergrad?
Often imitated, never duplicated, Malkmus’ musings, at their best, hit that sweet spot of being clever enough that you can enjoy the pomo poetics on their own terms, yet suggestive enough to hint at being more than that, at some deeper significance beneath the surface. On the whole, Wig Out at Jagbags strikes a good balance between a little bit of Malkmus being Malkmus and just enough of him letting his guard down, tapping into a more vulnerable side of him as a songwriter that’s underrated and overlooked because it’s so often deflected and obscured by the ingenious wordplay. As Malkmus tells Rolling Stone when looking back on Pavement’s heyday in the ’90s,”being cynical just meant you cared. There was something at stake.”
On Wig Out, you find a retrospective and more introspective Malkmus, one who appreciates that he wouldn’t have gotten this far into a career as a still productive, still relevant indie legend if his cynicism wasn’t matched — or surpassed — by caring. That sense of self-awareness comes through on the single “Lariat” in the wise (not wise-ass) line, “You aren’t what you’re not / You’re not what you aren’t,” which you, in turn, could extrapolate to mean that Malkmus also realizes he is what he is. And you couldn’t find a stronger statement of how Malkmus makes the most of this self-knowledge than the twangy, jangly “Lariat”, a silver tongued yet sneakily poignant piece that finds the happy medium between those modes better than just about anything since Pavement’s “Gold Soundz” golden days. At once briskly hooky enough to grab your attention, but languid and loose in a way that goes at its own pace, “Lariat” is all about the benefit of hindsight as Malkmus flashes back to his late-’80s years at UVA, cross-referencing Mudhoney and Sun City Girls as the soundtrack to him and Pavement cohort Bob Nastanovich goofing around (“Bobby spinning out / I was so messed up”). But it’s when Malkmus declares, “We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever / Talking about the A-D-Ds,” that reflects the most about his mindset, as he almost gets wistful and sentimental on you, except that he can’t help but sneak in a pun when the opportunity avails itself.
Maybe “Lariat” only leaves you wanting more than a fleeting glimpse through a window into the enigmatic Malkmus’ soul, but such moments find him more open and at ease than usual both lyrically as well as musically. With Wig Out‘s natural, easygoing mood picking up where he left off on his last effort, 2011’s return-to-form, Mirror Traffic, Malkmus here sounds at times as inspired and reinvigorated as he’s been post-Pavement — and maybe even as far back as Wowee Zowee — as he goes with the flow with a wry sense of humor and playfulness that doesn’t seem burdened or get too arch too often. On “The Janitor Revealed”, Malkmus is at the top of his free-associating game as he strings together one turn of phrase after another into something seemingly coherent as only he can, while the bluesy “Independence Street” finds him scatting out obscure references and absurd imagery in his unmistakable cadence to craft a narrative you want to follow. Better yet is “Houston Hades”, what with its triumphant false-start lead-in throwing you off before it settles into a comfy groove of slack, loping mid-tempo instrumentation and stream-of-consciousness vocals about how “everyday people need love” that stray for the heck of it without losing its thread.
But it might just be that Malkmus’ personality emerges more in the intuitive and spirited tone of Wig Out than in anything he utters. Compacting and roughing up the free-flowing forms he’s explored with the Jicks, “Rumble at the Rainbo” and the bristling, coiled “Shibboleth” are punchy pop blasts, if not from the past, then at least with enough pep and vigor to fondly recall Crooked Rain-era Pavement. At the other end of the spectrum, Malkmus is also able to reach for a higher level of sophistication on “J Smoov” and “Chartjunk” by blending in some snazzy string and horn arrangements. Malkmus’ take on classic R&B, the gently grand “J Smoov”, in particular, fills out his sound with a resonance and richness that’s more pronounced than his typically guitar-centric sensibilities, but in a way that still suits his signature low-frills indie m.o. to make you wonder if this is what growing older gracefully sounds like in his case.
Sure, there are stretches on Wig Out at Jagbags where it feels like Malkmus just puts it on autopilot simply because he can, trying to get away with wordplay for wordplay’s sake when he’s riffing off board game names on “Scattegories” and the unfortunate rhyme in the title of “Cinnamon and Lesbians”. Yet even with these missteps, it all goes back to Malkmus understanding you aren’t what you’re not and, more importantly, recognizing that you are what you are. If nothing else, that’s what Wig Out at Jagbags reveals about Stephen Malkmus, no matter how much more it lets you in on who he is or isn’t.