Stephen Malkmus: self-titled

Stephen Malkmus
Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus didn’t just lose a band when he split from Pavement last year. He shucked an albatross from ’round his neck.

Thank God he did. Against all expectations — from this corner, anyway — Malkmus has crafted his most mature, accomplished and sophisticated collection of songs to date. If it took losing the band to free his muse, well, see ya’, Spiral, Ibold et al. Been nice knowing you.

While this solo bow lacks the immediate spark and brash energy of Slanted and Enchanted, it trumps nearly everything else Pavement released, and will resonant far longer than even groundbreaking debut.

When Pavement ground to a halt after the tour for Terror Twilight, who could be blamed for breathing a sigh of relief? What started as a fresh burst of creativity — first as the bastard children of Lou Reed and the Fall, later a singular voice in the alt-rock wasteland, a voice equally influenced by the Dead and the Velvets — became a bloated, directionless, five-headed beast.

At the end, the band didn’t seem capable of making a coherent musical statement. Terror Twilight is a meandering disc, a recorded document of the band’s slide into jam-band land. The songs don’t so much stop and start as creep into being and then fade away. Yet it does contain some of Malkmus’s most cogent pop moments, including the lead single, “Spit on a Stranger”. But much of this drags. Sure it must have been fun to play this if you were in the band, but such noodling is better left to the rehearsal space.

Whether it was by design or luck, Malkmus sheds this excess and indulgence on his new disc, trimming the songs back to their catchiest, most well-structured core. All his quirks are present and accounted for, more so, in fact, than they have been since the early days of Pavement. He regains the Lou Reed-like blunt delivery of old on “The Hook”, and ups the fun quotient considerably throughout.

In doing so, he finds the right balance between forced obscurity and pop sensibility. The best moments here are the most brazenly pop, from the jaunty keyboard tune “Phantasies” to the Yul Brynner tribute “Jo Jo’s Jacket”. (That’s no interpretation: “I’m the king of Siam / I’ve got a bald head / My name is Yul Brynner / And I am a famous movie star.”) The xylophone-like tones that carry the melody of “Troubbble” are worthy of a Saturday morning kids TV show theme, while “Discretion Grove” is a layered slice of pure boogie.

But all is not whimsy and quips. “Church on White”, an elegy of sorts for late author Robert Bingham (an Open City editor and Malkmus chum) is hushed and reverent, perhaps the most touching thing this wisecracking ironist has ever penned. Meanwhile, “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” tells the tale of an 18-year-old girl dating a 31-year-old cover band member. He covers a lot of ground in a short space, including the couple’s love of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms.

The most impressive thing about this disc, however, is the sound. It is a full, fleshed-out production, one that shows a lot of effort in arrangement and recording. That Malkmus did so with a trio, playing all of the guitar himself, shows how much Pavement was holding him back. His band, the moonlighting Joanna Bolme and John Moen on bass and drums, respectively), offers able accompaniment, but this is clearly a solo record at its most literal.

With Pavement in the rear-view, he was free from the constraint of both his bandmates wishes and the public’s expectations. Sure, this sounds at its heart like a Pavement record, but that’s only because, to a large extent, Malkmus was Pavement. Thing is, he couldn’t make the best Pavement record until he left the band. Weird, huh?