Seventeen years and seven albums in and around his Jicks, Stephen Malkmus remains both fairly punctual and reliable in following contrary impulses, loosening up and reigning it in from song to song, record to record.
Malkmus has honed his casual sleight of hand techniques to the point that on Sparkle Hard you can often see the result but miss the steps. The presence a song projects can feel out of sync with how you would describe it on paper. Only until the end of “Cast Off”, as the bashed ivories and skyrocket guitar solo collide, does the word ‘Queen’ appear though it was lurking the whole time. Is it compact art rock, complex pop, neither or both? There’s a surprising amount of twists and turns on the album for prog-spotters to get caught up in: the wriggling sci-fi “Future Suite”, the fluttering seven minutes of “Kite”, the two-part finale “Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels”. Yet the word that regularly comes to mind throughout the album is ‘focused’, not ‘indulgent’.
“Refute”, a jangling country trot adorned with fiddle and slide guitar, isn’t necessarily the duet you’d expect from Malkmus and Kim Gordon, but how else could it have turned out? A knowing post-modern love song about two people who somehow come together despite all their similarities, the sarcasm stops short of cynicism. The couple can brow-hop from high to low, admiring both “Egon Schiele prints and french fries”, and make the very passe decision to get married. “Marry on now, children,” Gordon warns, “But be aware / The world doesn’t want you anymore.” It’s a bit of sweet absurdism, or sorta-romantic comic relief.
A heavier switch is pulled on “Bike Lane”. A pedaling backbeat and swerving boogie blues riff merge into “Another beautiful bike lane”, and then right when you think you’re settling into a cozy Portlandia-style satire comes the kick. The song bounces into the verse, but Malkmus turns serious as he sings about “The cops, the cops that killed Freddie / Sweet young Freddie Gray.” Standing trivial middle class concerns next to too-common horrors of American life, “Bike Lane” lulls before it bites. The words might not even register at first, catching the listener off guard like a series of questions in a lie detector test.
The breeziest song on the album, “Middle America”, is also its most belligerent; “Gold Soundz” after a long bittersweet summer of porch beers and goodbyes. “Men are scum, I won’t deny / May you be s***faced the day you die / And be successful in all your lies / In the wintertime.” The crunching “Shiggy”, either the straightforward stomper it appears to be or maybe the sneakiest track of them all, is at times hardly less pointed. “Don’t speak your dumb wisdom / I’m not so easily confused,” Malkmus almost shouts, his back up against blind opinions, ready to return to the arms of the underground.
When to take a lyric at face value sometimes remains a question. Strung through the squeaking wah wah and airy chime of “Kite” is the recurring idea of “looking for the kind of guy who turns my third place medal into gold”, around which Malkmus tosses in rhyming non sequiturs with a bit of wry umpf. Yet the notion of a merit alchemist is no less a potential nonsensical distraction. Not every song on the record points right and runs left. “Solid Silk”, with a striking string section provided by Kyleen King (Bizarre Star Strings, Swansea), is as unbent and lovely as Malkmus gets., while the aforementioned “Shiggy” is direct and punching.
Still, if the dots ever start to line up too straight, Malkmus is keen to pivot away. Sparkle Hard slips out of twisting plot traps as nonchalantly as it slides around rigid logic. The characteristics that have kept his music with the Jicks since the early 2000s one of indie rock’s more subtle but steady pleasures haven’t faded in the least, and Sparkle Hard finds them at their brightest concentration.