Stephen Malkmus’s second post-Pavement venture, 2003’s Pig Lib was a bit of a snoozer, to be kind. As a devoted Pavement diehard, I did my best to convince myself that it was a great record, but to no avail at all. A third of the songs seemed to exist solely as vessels to showcase Malkmus’s ever-increasing guitar wizardry, while another third were trite pop throwaways. But it was that other third — the good third — that presented the real problem. If Malkmus wasn’t going to give us a stunner, I was hoping he’d deliver an absolute clunker. You know, something along the lines of The Cult of Ray, an album that would just wipe the slate clean and separate him from his glorious past as the ringleader of the band of the ’90s. But songs like “Animal Midnight” and “Us” were reminders of the brilliance that Malkmus achieved with Pavement, and were enough to keep the faithful hoping for a complete return to form.
When I say “the faithful”, perhaps I would be better off saying “the obsessed”. After all, it’s been 10 years since he’s released a truly transcendent record. (Well, that’s not entirely true, as the Silver Jews’ 1998 album American Water, which Malkmus played guitar on, is a stone classic.) So any reasonable person would be willing to accept the fact that Pavement was of a different time and that he’s moved on. But, for better or worse, Malkmus inspired a certain kind of devotion that was more akin to idol worship. Or, quite possibly, it was just me. But I seem to remember lots of other people getting to those Pavement shows three hours early, hanging around the bus afterwards, and doing it all over the next night in a different city. And it wasn’t just because he wrote genre-defining songs like “Summer Babe”” “Gold Soundz” and “Texas Never Whispers”. It was also that aura that surrounded him, which if he didn’t exactly cultivate, he didn’t do much to reject it. The smart-ass interviews, the Corgan/Weiland-baiting lyrics, the split charming/aloof stage presence. Whereas Bob Pollard was too old, Lou Barlow too whiny, Mac McCaughan too normal, Malkmus had all the elements of an indie-rock poster boy, a designation that’s almost entirely contradictory, I realize.
This is what has made his descent into the land of mortal musicians hard to come to terms with. In those interviews, on stage, he’s still the same SM — except he’s playing these mind-bogglingly mediocre songs. It was akin to watching Michael Jordan during his final comeback. Yeah, that’s MJ, but it’s not MJ. But this changes with Face the Truth — for the most part. If it’s not a leap in the right direction, it’s at least a big step. The cold, distant sound of Pig Lib is replaced with a much more appealing playfulness and almost neurotic attention to detail. It’s as if Malkmus’s solo career to date has found him working his way back through the Pavement catalog for inspiration and he’s finally reached Wowee Zowee. (Which, for some unknown reason, isn’t widely hailed as a masterpiece on the level of Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.)
Lead track “Pencil Rot” nicely sets the stage for the next 40 minutes. It’s fun, chaotic, imperfect, but ultimately pleasing. Many of the devices that Malkmus returns to frequently on the record are found here. There’s the sassy vocal delivery, with a massive helping of falsetto. There are the random noises flying from every direction, which ensure that each verse or chorus will be slightly different from the one that preceded it. Some of those random sounds aren’t all that appealing, mind you. Those would be — and I apologize for the terminology, but it’s really the only way to say it — the farty keyboard noises that crop up in about half the songs. There is also the general wordiness, which combined with the fact that the lyrics are printed in the CD booklet, may indicate that Malkmus actually cares what he’s signing about for once. Not everything works in this tune, and you kind of scratch your head when Malkmus starts rapping about a “shit pile” (his rapping skills have not improved since “Blue Hawaiian”, by the way), but there’s a definite vibrancy that makes the whole thing rather intoxicating.
“Mama” doesn’t have quite the same all-hell-breaking-loose vibe, showing its charm with subtle harmonies and a delightful guitar riff that’s part-twang, part-noodly. This is also the song where Malkmus’s falsetto goes from amusing curiosity to unquestionable asset. The whole thing is like a cheerier cousin to Pavement’s “Father to a Sister of Thought” and is certainly one of Malkmus’s best compositions of the past decade. “Baby C’mon”, the album’s most straightforward rock song, is exceedingly silly (“You can give it to me Timmy/ I’m out here on a limby” or maybe try “Well half way through my life/ I flipped an internal bitch”), but the fun it projects fits in with the general mood of the album. It’s not a token rocker because it doesn’t at all feel forced.
There are some swings and misses, to be sure, but the point is that Malkmus is taking his cuts. The light-funk of “Kindling for the Master” is a bad imitation of pre-Scientology Beck, complete with the same piano featured on “Where It’s At”. It’s as skip-worthy as anything from Pig Lib. “I’ve Hardly Been” is more of a foul tip, managing to conjure up something slightly interesting with its mashing together of stilted acoustic guitars, those — let’s call them gurgling, this time — keyboards, and oddly-timed drums. These songs don’t work because they contain some questionable ideas, but at least there’s a certain adventurousness to them. Wispy soft rockers like “Loud Cloud Crowd” and “Malediction” are nice enough, but they are just sort of… there. Once they are over, it’s like they never happened, as they disappear into that same void where Starsailor songs go.
But there are even some bright spots with these more delicate tunes. Malkmus wills “Post-Paint Boy” to success with frequently alliterative lyrics that have you hanging on every word, all delivered with an especially inspired vocal take. “It Kills” scores the albums catchiest moment with the simple, repeated chanting of half a syllable (the “i” in “it”). And the minute long guitar jam at the song’s end brings Pig Lib to mind, but it fits perfectly within the song’s structure, serving as a fitting conclusion to the song.
Leading up to the release of Face the Truth, word was that almost all of the record was recorded and produced by Malkmus. He later made a point of saying this wasn’t the case, and he’s quite diplomatic about giving his backing band, the Jicks, credit for their contributions. But it’s still quite clear that he’s not just calling the shots here, he’s firing them too. The first picture of Malkmus in the liner notes is of him behind the drum kit. Think that’s an accident? Left to his own devices again (for all the romantic notions of “Pavement”, those early records you love are more or less glorified Malkmus solo albums with a little Spiral Stairs guitar), Malkmus has finally been able to indulge his every whim. Besides proving to be one of the few artists to actually work better when left to his own devices, you get the sense he takes more pride in what he does on his own. So here’s hoping Malkmus stays isolated in that basement when it’s time to make music. I don’t need to convince myself that it’s great record; I’m content knowing that it’s very good.