Stephen Malkmus Albums From Worst To Best
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.
Mirror Traffic (2011)
"I run into parts where I don't have anything good to sing, and I just sing borderline clichés or things I hope no one is really listening to," Malkmus told Dean Wareham in a revealing interview with Salon published around the time of Mirror Traffic's release. "When that happens, I just think, well, it's like classic rock." Such candor is admirable from a man whose lyrics have probably inspired more tattoos than he's comfortable knowing about. The classic rock analogue is unfortunately not restricted to lyrical clichés, though: Mirror Traffic is in many ways a quintessential "back-to-basics" record, that perennial rock and roll sham on which an artist's previous attempts to experiment beyond marketability are reigned in, usually at the request of the label, by a "name" producer (in this case, the ubiquitous Beck). There are more songs on Mirror Traffic than on any previous Stephen Malkmus album, and it is the first album since Malkmus' debut -- now a decade old -- to not feature a song exceeding eight minutes in length (the longest here is barely over five). Like most "back to basics" albums, Mirror Traffic often sounds desperate to please. Beck as producer mostly stays out of the way, though his influence can be heard on the lumpy Sea Change-sounding coda of "No One Is (As I Are Be)," the skittering spotlessness of "Stick Figures In Love," and the Laurel Canyon mosey of "Long Hard Book." Most of it sounds like indie rock pastiche, but at least it's good indie rock pastiche: Opener "Tigers" recalls a neutered Silkworm; the drowsy "No One Is (As I Are Be)" evokes a phoned-in Bonnie Prince Billy, especially in the phrasing; "Tune Grief" sounds like the kind of noise-pop blast that Goo-era Sonic Youth could fire off between connecting flights. Malkmus originally wanted to call the album LA Guns, but, fearing litigation from the hair metal band of the same name, ultimately reconsidered. Perhaps a better title would have been something along the lines of Motley Crew.
Face The Truth (2005)
"All my stray thoughts -- they are unarranged," Malkmus sings on Face The Truth's eight-minute centerpiece "No More Shoes." Reviewers eager to employ the old rock-crit trick of using an artist's lyrics against them to construct a scathing review should have sent Malkmus a Whitman's Sampler for that one. But Malkmus is no dummy: Consider the use of the word 'unarranged,' which is not the same as ‘disarranged.' No one's come in and scrambled all of Malkmus' carefully collated and catalogued stray thoughts, nor has he cunningly disarranged them for art's sake, in the tradition of, say, William Burroughs or Brion Gysin. Rather, they are unarranged, their disorder merely the result of intentional neglect. Recorded in Malkmus' home in Portland and mixed by Phil Ek (Built to Spill, the Shins), Face The Truth was largely assembled with little outside interference (the Jicks were overdubbed later), leaving Malkmus free to indulge his every antic impulse. On Face The Truth, that means a crowded agglomeration of Moogs, keyboards, fake strings, and processed vocals, overcompensating for the lack of a band by cramming every interstitial sonic crevice with content. Thankfully, several songs survive the blitz: "It Kills," a banjo-assisted holdover from the Pig Lib sessions, makes good on the promise of Pavement's "Folk Jam"; the relatively unadorned "Post-Paint Boy" also recalls Pavement in its use of a single note guitar line that performs a sort of intertwining duet with the vocal melody (this was a sort of Pavement trademark -- see "Transport Is Arranged," "Heaven Is A Truck," "Rattled By The Rush," and many others); both "Freeze the Saints" and "Loud Cloud Crowd" possess a sort of sock-skating elegance that similarly recalls the halcyon days of 90s indie; and the taut, McCartney-sounding "Mama" is irresistible fun. The rest of Face The Truth often sounds like the first Roxy Music album being performed by Industrial Design students gathered round the Volcano vape.
Real Emotional Trash (2008)
Time has a particular way of expanding during Real Emotional Trash's 55 minutes, and if you've ever found pothead significance in Dali's The Persistence of Memory, you are likely to enjoy the clock-melting aspects of this, Malkmus' stoniest album. Many trademarks remain: song titles again appear to be the result of some Random Malkmus Name Generator app ("Elmo Delmo," "Wicked Wanda," "Dragonfly Pie"), and unexpected musical transitions continue to provide exciting sharp turns. But much of Real Emotional Trash sounds like a showcase for Malkmus The Guitar Player over Malkmus The Songwriter. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: It is only natural that Malkmus' tonal spelunking, having grown steadily adventurous over the course of three albums, would seek some sort of plateau. The trouble is, the more lyrical Malkmus' guitar playing becomes, the more his actual lyrics provide a frustrating dissonance.
Where once Malkmus made an art of lyrical detachment, now he just sounds detached. The band, too, appears to be going through a sort of transition: Gone is Decemberists drummer John Moen, replaced by Janet Weiss (Sleater Kinney, Quasi, Wild Flag), an occasional contributor to previous album, Face The Truth. It is telling that despite two drummers as talented and distinctive as Moen and Weiss, such a personnel shift is barely noticeable here. A persistent problem with Malkmus's "jammier" records is that he often seems like the only one interested in jamming, and nowhere is this more evident than on Real Emotional Trash. As guitar albums go, though, it's a solid one. Malkmus' profligate use of effects and extravagant solos might bum out fans of his taut, sunny side, but should please those who thought Endless Boogie made perfect sense as an opening act on his recent tour. "Dragonfly Pie" is all vacuum tube rattle and Sir Lord Baltimore fuzz, complete with a great Royal Trux-y chorus; "Hopscotch Willie" stages two harmonizing guitars in some after-dark schoolyard encircling each other with knives over a motoric midsection; more thick fuzz tones provide a hefty foundation for "Baltimore," which, like album highlight "Elmo Delmo," pits stoner guitar squiggle against melodies that do more than hint at Malkmus' fondness for English psych folk. In the shadow of such mega-jams, the relative pop of "Gardenia," "We Can't Help You," and the oddly Pulp-y "Wicked Wanda" seem ponderous, inconsequential, and somewhat out of place.
Stephen Malkmus (2001)
A dreamy-looking Malkmus, sporting a vintage t-shirt and a tanned countenance, poses against a retiring blue sky at sunset, his face partially obscured by shadows; the cover of Stephen Malkmus announced "solo album" with all the subtlety of a Red Fang music video. The conspicuous mullet isn't fooling anyone, either -- surely it is the mullet of a man with an advanced degree in the Humanities. This is, of course, all part of the fun. Malkmus wanted to release the album under the name the Jicks (and under the title Swedish Reggae) until Matador strongly discouraged him from doing so. The cover portrait, then -- more Can I Borrow A Feeling? than Horses -- is Malkmus' twisted idea of a last laugh. But if the cover suggests songs about the joys of marriage and Subaru ownership -- perhaps featuring one or two acoustic numbers featuring the London Symphony Orchestra -- the album, thankfully, delivers nothing of the sort. While retaining the cryptic word scrambles and haughty existentialism he's been perfecting since the first Pavement single, Malkmus' lyrical focus has widened to accommodate coherent character vignettes and linear, if fragmented, narratives. The most noticeable change, though, is the guitar playing. Somewhere around the time of Terror Twilight, Malkmus grew into a proficient and unique guitarist, with a style recalling Robert Fripp auditioning for the Voidoids. Stephen Malkmus also finds Malkmus at something of a songwriting peak: "Church On White" is a piece in the likes of starry-eyed Pavement favorites like "Grounded" and "Stop Breathin,'" and features some beautifully slippery Travis Bean guitar harmonies; "Pink India," with its unforgettable and oft-tweeted couplet of "I had a crap gin and tonic/ it wounded me," is breezily psychedelic; "Trojan Curfew" is distinguished by languid slide guitar and one-handed piano; and the droll, cowbell-assisted "The Hook" sounds like Jonathan Richman covering Some Girls. The album also contains some duds, like the silly and condescending "Jenny And The Ess Dog" (whose pilfering of the melody from Elliot Smith's "Say Yes" is the least of its loathsome crimes), and the cheeky Yul Brenner-ode "Jo-Jo's Jacket," which sounds like something Fountains of Wayne might have relegated to a B-side.
Wig Out At Jagbags (2014)
Featuring not one, but two explicit references to the Grateful Dead (one lyrical, one musical), Wig Out At Jagbags is the sound of Malkmus -- a guy who, let's face it, probably would have always chosen a seat at the PGA tournament over a South by Southwest lanyard -- considerably mellowed. (Ironically, the album is named after a similarly titled 1987 album by pop punk pioneers Dag Nasty). Watch any recent interview with Malkmus on YouTube and try to reconcile the affable, congenial man onscreen with the contemptuous younger version of himself responding to many of the same moronic questions. From his candor to Rolling Stone about the album's non-candidacy as a ‘classic' (quoted and hyperlinked in this piece's introduction), to its occasional cornball attempts at humor, Wig Out At Jagbags feels like an easy, low-stakes ride, a naturalist portrait of the Jargon King in repose. Recall the young Malkmus on Pavement's "Range Life" taking smart-kid potshots at then-untouchable alternative rock demigods Smashing Pumpkins and low-hanging fruit Stone Temple Pilots; twenty years later, on Wig Out At Jagbags' bouncy first single "Lariat," we find Malkmus cheerfully giving shout-outs to albums he actually likes. This focus on the positive does not, however, come at the expense of wit: In the same song, Malkmus treats us to one of his trademark lyrical ambiguities, singing "We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever/ Talkin' bout the eighties," but adds a syllabic stutter to the word "eighties," pronouncing it "A-D-Ds." A sly reference to a certain disorder whose criteria was formerly established by the Psychiatric Association during said decade? Possibly. It's certainly no less a stretch that trying to parse why Malkmus changes the word "career" to "Korea" on "Cut Your Hair," or replaces, at the very last millisecond, the pronoun "I" with "they" when discussing the functionless nature kids described in "Range Life." Indeed, Malkmus remains as loveably mischievous as ever; there's even a song on Wig Out At Jagbags that's ostensibly about (or is at least named after) Detroit Pistons power forward Josh Smith, for goodness sakes. Wig Out At Jagbags also improves upon the expanded musical range heard on the disappointing Mirror Traffic, and though this eclecticism again results in some of the expected schizophonia, the qualitative ratio has improved dramatically. Clear highlights are the Silver-Jews-Visit-Haight-Ashbury waltz of "Independence Street" and opening cut "Planetary Motion," which shifts between tricky 11/4, 6/4, and 7/4 time but conceals its elaborate construction beneath a melody that's as much an earworm as anything MTV played in the "A-D-Ds." Aging gracefully looks good on Malkmus, and Wig Out At Jagbags hints that he may have a few classics in him yet, after all.
Pig Lib (2003)
2003's Pig Lib retrospectively casts Stephen Malkmus' self-titled debut as an anomaly. The debut's relative accessibility might have falsely suggested that Malkmus' dalliances with prog, as heard on Pavement's controversial final album Terror Twilight, were behind him, but Pig Lib defies expectation not only by reintroducing those elements, but by reintroducing them so explicitly. The result is Malkmus' greatest album to date, one that perfectly balances his magisterial guitar playing with the songwriting on which he built his name. By now, Malkmus had internalized his rock fixations, and Pig Lib is the sound of these fixations secreting from his pores. He's smart enough to acknowledge rock's primal power but canny enough to not embrace its signifiers with too much outward jean jacket zeal; like a master chef counting single grains of cumin, he understands that a little Thin Lizzy goes a long way. Consistently underrated as a composer and arranger, the Malkmus of Pig Lib is full of surprises, whether in the form of abrupt tempo changes, mid-song introductions of new sonic colors, or protracted codas (Oh, how Malkmus loves a coda!). Following the first chorus of "(Do Not Feed The) Oyster," the song careens into an unexpected middle section featuring twin harmonizing lead guitars and backwards effects before plummeting back into the regularly scheduled pop song, like some very psychedelic test of the emergency broadcast system. It's a great, succinct sampler of millennial Malkmus: psych in microcosm, prog in miniature. The breezy "Vanessa From Queens" combines cheapo Casio factory pre-sets, handclaps, and a stereo-panned, direct-to-soundboard guitar straight off All Things Must Pass, while the oddly triumphant-sounding "Dark Wave" is "Embassy Row" recast at the place where power metal meets power pop. How much you enjoy the epic "1% Of One" will depend on your patience for guitar solos, which take up more than half of the song's nine minutes. Puzzling out notes in real time with jazz-improv logic, Malkmus dots, doodles, and snarls his way through the tensile improvisation with great authority; you can almost hear him surprising himself as the solo builds, like an obstacle course participant whose every incremental victory exponentially builds confidence for the next challenge. "1% Of One" is a song that, like the rest of Pig Lib, has little to do with the albatross of a legacy, but everything to do with greatness in spite of it.