Few solo careers justify wholesale rebranding. Though it has become common for aging indie rockers to want a “clean slate” following the dissolution of their respective beloved bands, listeners can usually spot an old dog doing old tricks, and a fresh moniker alone is unlikely to persuade them to reconsider their already-established impressions. But unlike the mostly nominal differences between, say, a Robert Pollard album and a Guided By Voices album, the music Stephen Malkmus has produced as a solo artist (and with his backing band, the Jicks) is as distinct from Pavement as Paul McCartney’s is from the Beatles, or John Cale’s is from the Velvet Underground. Inevitably, his music will always be compared to that of his former band, but only a superficial listener could mistake a Stephen Malkmus album for a Pavement one.
Perhaps the most profound change in Malkmus’ post-Pavement music is the near-complete abandonment of the raw, frequently shambolic side of Pavement that had rock critics scrambling to liken his former band to the Fall, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Swell Maps. While AM radio signifiers were creeping into Pavement songs as early as 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Malkmus, beginning with 2001’s self-titled album, began to embrace capital-R Rock tropes in ways that seemed less trickster-y and more reverential. He may not be the first punk rock turncoat to embrace the dinosaur music of punk’s sworn enemies, but he’s one of the most visible alt-rock ambassadors to do so.
This is not to say that his music suddenly grew earnest and boring. Of Malkmus’ many enduring qualities as a writer, inscrutability remains his most salient. He is, after all, a man who can deliver a lyric like, “Give it to me, Timmy/ I’m out here on a limb-y” like he was singing a protest song. This can work against him: Even at his most brazenly straight-faced and vulnerable, Malkmus, like Dylan, can appear impish, calculating, and untrustworthy; too smart for his own good, too cool to play it entirely straight. Like magic eye paintings, tantric sex, or the poems of Paul Muldoon, frustration becomes a crucial component of the seduction, and not everyone has the patience to decide whether the payoff is worth it.
As a result, Malkmus is often misunderstood. In an uncharacteristically unguarded interview with Ian Svenonius for Svenonius’ Firing Line-style talk show Soft Focus, Malkmus admits his strong preference for a post-John Cale Velvet Underground. To this, Svenonius astutely notes Malkmus’ attraction to what he refers to as “classic formalism.” Malkmus doesn’t argue, but instead speaks of his fondness for Jeff Koons’ kitschy large-scale postmodernism and its “multi-dimensional layers of meaning” while characterizing Jackson Pollock’s work as “repulsive.” To say that these revelations are telling is an understatement; in fact, they are key to understanding Malkmus’ art: It isn’t artsy. Like Koons, Malkmus works with specific, even meticulous intent, and if his lyrics read as incoherent strings of spoonerisms and meaningless non-sequiturs, they are nonetheless communicated with distinct aesthetic purpose. For Stephen Malkmus, music is a canvas, not a projection.
Which is why Malkmus’ affinity for classic rock is often interpreted as being somehow ironic, irreconcilable with, say, a casual name-check of Walter Lippmann or a song about Yul Brenner. While contemporaries from Royal Trux to the Hold Steady have ruthlessly and brilliantly used rock’s ecumenical appeal as a sort of psychological warfare, Malkmus simply views rock as something easily — enjoyably — perverted by language. He’s not culture jamming, he’s playing Boggle.
It is true that Malkmus has yet to release a solo album as good as Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee. He’s probably not intending to: In a recent interview with Rolling Stone to promote his latest album, Wig Out At Jagbags, Malkmus admits that “[n]othing classic is probably going on here, let’s face it.” One can almost imagine a publicist reading those words before grimly filling a bathtub with warm water and opening his or her veins. By appearing to set expectations low, Malkmus no doubt realizes his own potential to deliver a classic in spite of himself — note the “probably” in the Rolling Stone quote, surely no accident for a man with such a facility with language — but he’s certainly not going to get all plan-y about it. This façade of underachieving would be frustrating if it didn’t work so well as strategy, but the more Malkmus avoids the pressure to make good on his legacy as Hip Priest Of The Lollapalosers, the more liberated, natural, and necessary his music sounds.
No one really believed Pavement when they sang the repeated refrain of “I’m tryin'” on 1992’s “Conduit For Sale!” Indeed, the band made an art of looking like they were trying as little as possible. But latter-day Malkmus reminds us of Yoda’s credo: “Do, or do not; there is no ‘try.'” Audible on even his most befuddling solo work is the sound of Malkmus making peace with the “doing,” and doing what comes naturally. This is the thread that runs through all of Malkmus’ solo albums, which we rank from worst to best, starting here.