If you don’t know Stephen Malkmus by now, you will never never never know him. The former Pavement frontman’s signature sound was cemented somewhere around 1999′s contented, side-eyed sigh Terror Twilight — the fifth and final Pavement LP in name but Malkmus’ solo debut in spirit — or if you really wanna be a dick about it, circa 1994′s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, where post-punk’s most melodic disciples discarded their Swell Maps albums and embraced a skewed take on classic rock. You can at least tell those Pavement albums apart, though, whereas Malkmus’ 13-year solo career with the Jicks has been like snapshots of the same haircut at different points in the growth cycle. Not that he’s alone in his stasis. As indie rock has evolved beyond recognition, its founding fathers have remained steadfastly in their lanes. Malkmus’ fellow Mount Rushmore candidates from Guided By Voices, Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, Sonic Youth, and Built To Spill all settled into comfortable predictability in middle age. In Malkmus’ case, that means continuously kicking out quirky rock songs built from off-kilter hooks, refracted blues and prog riffs, and the obfuscated phraseology he’s been honing for decades. Band members come and go, and the material’s quality waxes and wanes, but it’s always that same old SM, love him or hate him. (And many do.)
Wig Out At Jagbags, then, is bereft of surprises but not delights. Malkmus’ sixth album under his own name suffers somewhat from following 2011′s Mirror Traffic. That one boasted Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss behind the drum kit and Beck behind the boards, the finest supporting cast Malkmus has worked with since disbanding Pavement at the turn of the millennium. Agreeing on a high water mark for the Jicks would probably prove even more contentious than coming to a consensus about the best Pavement album, but in my mind, Mirror Traffic was the highlight of Malkmus’ solo years. The songs were punchy and precise, and even when they did spiral into jam-band territory as Jicks songs do, they maintained a sense of purpose and direction. The band was sharp, and Beck’s production lent the music an emotional and sonic depth that Malkmus doesn’t always pull off. In that context, Wig Out At Jagbags feels like just another Stephen Malkmus album, one that will hit the sweet spot for SM zealots and rankle the haters as ever.
Malkmus has always been a word fiend — Pavement’s Scrabble obsession is well-documented, and there’s a song on Jagbags called “Scattergories” — and anyone who shares his fondness for twisted turns of phrase will find plenty to feast on here, from the ridiculous title on down. On “Houston Hades,” which sounds like Springsteen’s “Glory Days” as filtered through the sagging shoulders of Pavement’s Brighten The Corners, Malkmus says more with one farcical word (“truckhuggers”) than most lyricists could in an entire album. The prog-rock story song “Surreal Teenager” closes the album with wordy character sketching such as “John is ever so loyal/ He’s pugnacious in that regard.” Even when expressing something like genuine sentiment, he’s tricky. The “Lariat” lyric “A love like oxygen/ So foxy then, so terrific now” is the kind of loaded yet opaque couplet he’s spent decades perfecting. The whole album is like that, every song its own puzzle to unlock.
Musically, too, he keeps finding ways to slightly tweak otherwise straightforward pop songs, sometimes by veering them into far-flung time signatures, but also by accessorizing smartly. Slow jam “J Smoov” makes over his trusty chiming guitar octaves in clean, jazzy tones out of a Wes Montgomery record and incorporates a horn section. The brass gets put to more rollicking use on the Thin Lizzy sendup “Chartjunk,” built around a rad guitar hammer-on riff that gives the song its sense of propulsion. Opener “Planetary Motion” is straight-up psych rock, with fuzzed-out guitars dueling over the the rhythm section’s bluesy pulsations. Those all play like minor variations of a core sound that’s been locked into place for years, which becomes clear when he doesn’t bother to alter the formula at all: There are songs here that could have been on Pavement albums (“Independence Street,” “Cinnamon And Lesbians,” the excellent “The Janitor Revealed”) or even Pixies albums (“Shibboleth”). He still does zany things with his guitar and even zanier things with his voice in ways that accentuate rather than undercut his innate melodic touch, although these ones take a little longer to sink in than the hooks from, say, “Shoot The Singer” or “Carrot Rope.” You might be surprised at a detail here or there, but sonically you pretty much know what you’re getting before you press play.
The one component of Jagbags that indicates an artist in flux is the ideas behind the inscrutable lyrics. The Malkmus P.O.V. is well-defined at this point — a sort of absurdist meta-commentary on the music world and the broader human condition — but as he ages, he’s applying it to new contexts with new perspective. The material on Wig Out At Jagbags has been in the works since Pavement’s lengthy 2010 reunion tour, when the band played for fervent audiences far larger than they’d ever attracted the first time around, which had to be surreal. After that, Malkmus and his family moved from Portland to Berlin for two years, and although he told Spin the songs were mostly composed by the time he was living abroad, he acknowledged that, “In more general terms, just going somewhere else, moving, and getting out of a little bit of a rut has got to be good for you.” In the same interview, he talked about a more significant head trip, parenthood: “The kids are just little, tiny nuggets, and then they’re listening to Macklemore and dropping f-bombs, so that’s different.”
Maybe those kiddos bumping The Heist are what moved Malkmus to wax nostalgic on “Lariat,” the gently swaying lead single on which he reflects on his favorite music from college and half-seriously (is there any other way for him?) declares the ’80s music’s best decade ever. Or maybe he’s just feeling wistful because the sound he helped pioneer has reemerged in recent years as a retro movement, or because Pavement’s own classic-rock-aping records of yore are getting old enough to qualify as classic rock in their own right. Or maybe he’s fixated on the past because when he turns his attention back to the present day, his portrait of aging punk rockers seems far less flattering. The aggressively sardonic “Rumble At The Rainbo,” named for a bar in Chicago’s hip Ukranian Village, begins with the phrase “Come and join us in this punk rock tomb” and ends with “No one here has changed, and no one ever will.” It’s unclear whether that bit about never changing is a self-indictment or a self-defense, but it certainly seems like a life philosophy for Stephen Malkmus at this point. For better or for worse, he’s doing his thing — and the more time I spend with Wig Out At Jagbags, the more I’m inclined to side with “better.”
Other albums of note this week:
• Peter Gabriel’s covers collection And I’ll Scratch Yours (U.S. release)
• The British psych band TOY’s sophomore album Join The Dots (U.S. release)