Ah, the venerated frontman’s inevitable foray into solo waters. “Going solo”—it’s a cliché, implying you couldn’t get along with your bandmates, wanted to head in a different musical direction, or maybe you want your name on the album cover. But it often heralds the start of a prolific catalog of work that’s as good or better than the original band managed—see Bob Mould, Gwen Stefani, Björk; heck, even Foo Fighters was Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana solo project.
For others, it’s a one-and-done deal—an album or two that flops and lets everyone know that your ex-bandmates held the talent (see The Golden Scarab by the Doors’ keyboardist and singer Ray Manzarek). And for others, well, maybe they should have gone solo rather than drag their once beloved band through numerous line-up changes and into the “play the greatest hits!” ditch. I won’t name names, but Stephen Malkmus jibed this autumnal act during Pavement‘s “Range Life”.
Thankfully, Malkmus is in the first group. Best known, of course, as the player-in-chief of ’90s indier-than-indie cool kids Pavement, he has since produced nine studio albums, some by himself and some backed by his cozy ensemble of Portland players—Joanna Bolme, Mike Clark, and Jake Morris—known as the Jicks. The 2001 solo debut, aptly titled Stephen Malkmus, is a collection of accessible, refined, and catchy tracks—closer to the bratty bubble-gum fuzz of “Cut Your Hair” than the haphazard experimentalism of Wowee Zowee. It’s a guitar-led amalgam of poppy hooks, lackadaisical solos, lyrics that are bizarre, humorous, occasionally obtuse, and some simmering synths and irreverent samples thrown in for good measure. Yet, it also contains some of his most meditative moments.
There are homages to Lou Reed (“The Hook”), the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin (“Black Book”), and Westworld actor Yul Brynner. “Jo Jo’s Jacket”, one of two singles, begins with a sample of a Brynner interview over some sparse piano chords. As the ‘robotic cowboy’ concludes that shaving his head has opened up a lot of doors, the chugging and propulsive pop track kicks into gear. “Jo Jo’s Jacket” best exemplifies the album as a whole with its playful demeanor. This is Malkmus doing exactly what he wants, basking in the sunny glow of unencumbered creative opportunity and not taking things too seriously. Case in point: “I’ve got a bald head/ My name is Yul Brynner/ And I am a famous movie star.”
On “Phantasies” and “Trojan Curfew”, the music matches the breezy vibe of the album cover, which features a head-and-shoulders shot of a half-smiling, long-haired Malkmus on a beach. Handclaps, ‘wuh oh’s, and cheesy sound effects coalesce on the former, while “Trojan” is hazy and gentle, piano twinkles dancing with drinks of crystal clean guitar. In contrast, the album opener “Black Book” has a grittier swagger that the other tracks mostly eschew. It opens with a few eerie notes that evoke howling wolves before Verlaine-inspired overlapping guitars trip over one another in a hurried attempt to reach the drums that follow. It’s undoubtedly a highlight, even if it isn’t emblematic of the album’s overall easy-going smirk.
The touching centerpiece and Malkmus’ most affecting song since “Here” is “Church on White”, an elegy to the late author Robert Bingham, who lived at Church and White street in Lower Manhattan and died of an overdose in the late ’90s. “But all you ever wanted / Was everything/ and everything / Plus the truth”, Malkmus sings with a rare passion that manifests as carefree enthusiasm elsewhere on the album. It would have been hard to reconcile the puckish man who won’t take his hand off his hip during a performance of “Stereo” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien with the sober and sincere guy who penned “Church on White”. However, Pavement’s final Próst, 1999’s Terror Twilight, is far less playful than Stephen Malkmus. It still has the archetypal enigmatic lyrics—see “Carrot Rope”—but tracks such as “Major Leagues”, Nigel Godrich’s sleek production, and the overall animosity between the members around the time of recording do not scream fun.
Terror Twilight has been called the frontman’s solo debut. After all, he did play the majority of the instruments on the album. “Scott in our band, and the other ones, not only did they not like that song, but they barely played on it,” he told Emil Amos on Talkhouse Music Podcast. I would instead posit that it sounds like the somber conclusion of a band ready for closing time. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he mused that, with the album’s recording, “[I]t was nearing ten years of the band, and I felt like it was going to be a struggle instead of a joy.” Conversely, his first solo output sounds fun and refreshing, a rebirth, giving him the distance to reflect on the highlights of his time with Pavement. “By 31 I was the captain of a galleon / I was Poseidon’s new son / The coast of Montenegro was my favorite target / It was ever so fun,” he sings on “The Hook”.
Following the release of Stephen Malkmus, the musician toured the US, Europe, and Australia, playing the album in almost its entirety—plus a few covers and songs that would appear on the follow-up Pig Lib. However, he did not play a single Pavement song, perhaps a conscious decision to quarantine them in the past and commit to a fresh start. Only in the last few years has the Jicks started to sprinkle live sets with the likes of “Summer Babe” and “Stereo”.
It was with Pig Lib, two years later, that Malkmus started to delve into more experimental territory. It’s a much looser, sprawling album whose longest song tops nine minutes. He then released the prog-tastic Real Emotional Trash in 2008, featuring ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, and Beck-produced Mirror Traffic in 2011. It wasn’t until Sparkle Hard in 2018 when his solo debut got its companion piece, a return to form seventeen years later—with crunchy guitars and focused buoyant songs. The cover even features a beach, but this time with an elderly nude couple in a sailboat. Oh, the transience of youth.
After Sparkle Hard, the godfather of slacker-pop branched out once again. 2019’s Groove Denied is an orgy of electronica synth-pop, complete with auto-tuned vocals: “This was me fucking with Ableton and a short loop and thinking I did more than what I actually did,” he says of one song during a Fader interview. And his latest release is a stripped-back acoustic plodder, Traditional Techniques, which features a sitar and twelve-string guitar. In an interview with Aquarium Drunkard, Malkmus explained, “With Techniques, we set some guidelines—we’re going to play acoustic, balance the mixes with quiet drums, and feature stand-up bass.” In the context of this recent catalog, then, his self-titled debut may feel MOR retrospectively—there are no ten-minute jam-band freak-out solos à la Real Emotional Trash, no Auto-Tune, and the longest track on the album is “Pink India”, a tender yet tongue-in-cheek acoustic ballad that reaches just over five minutes.
Despite this, Stephen Malkmus is one of his most rewarding records. The other single is “Discretion Grove”. This Weezery frolic has a bridge section featuring competing guitars that shoot around like lasers before opening out into a final chorus whose lyrics continue the seaside theme of the artwork. “You’re never gonna run aground until the sun is down / You’re gonna hear the sound of a crazy ship”. Yet the peculiar music video features a raincoat-attired Malkmus singing into the camera and dancing on tables in a nondescript conference room.
The album’s earnest finale is “Deado”, a lazy, cloudy chorus built around two chords and the lyrics, “Jen, you took me far into a long line / Divine, divine, divine.” Malkmus revealed that this is a favorite of his songs. Speaking to Fader, he noted, “For that album, I had this Roland Groovebox thing with kitschy sounds on it that I wanted on the album because I thought it was ironic. I didn’t fully think it through. When I hear ’em now, I’m like, ‘That’s not as funny as I thought it was.’ But “Deado” and “Jo Jo’s Jacket” don’t have them on there very much.” (Spoiler alert: most of them can be found on “Phantasies”.)
The album’s other notable entries are the mischievous and light-hearted “Troubbble”, a one-and-a-half-minute wobble of bouncy castle crunch that sounds like it features a toy xylophone. And the fan-favorite “Jenny & The Ess Dog”, a poignant, John Updike-esque short story wrapped up in a jangly, sparkly ’60s pop package. Overall, Stephen Malkmus was an auspicious beginning to Malkmus’ prolific solo career, which has now doubled Pavement’s lifespan. It sounds like he was happy with his place in life, writing bright, laid-back yet focused songs, and in the process outgrowing his role as the bad-boy lodestar for flannel-clad indie slacker boys everywhere.