How rangy do you like your guitar jams? Well, if you’re not into shutting your mouth and letting the fretboard do the talking, you might not be that into digging through Real Emotional Trash. Yup, we’ve already visited Baltimore, presented a tracklist, and hinted at the expansiveness of Malkmus’s wild ride, but then we were only hinting. On his fourth solo album, SM ups the knot-per-inch ratio quite a bit from Face The Truth, which has its share of tunes at the 3 minute and less mark. Real Emotional sports a couple — “Gardenia” and “We Can’t Help You” — but otherwise we’re more usually in the five minutes and up realm. Then comes the 10-minute title track.
The odd part of all the excess it that it’s a more natural sounding, stylistically laid back album than its predecessor. You won’t hear such upfront bleeps and whirls, as on “Pencil Rot” or “I’ve Hardly Been,” etc. It’s fucking discursive, yeah, but its also crystalline and narrative. Daddy’s on the run. And, at times the wank maketh sense: It’s this vast landscape, the open highway, the pauses between sentences. We were talking about great lyrics recently when evaluating the Mountain Goats’ Heretic Pride. Of course, Malkmus is quite the wordsmith as well, though his narratives tend to spin in on themselves like his song structures. So you catch gleams and amazing lines, but the start to finish won’t be as clear as Darnielle’s more short story-style tunes. It’s almost like sayings from an absurdist Poor Richard’s Almanac: “It’s warm for a witch trial, / don’t you agree?,” “dragonfly wants a piece of pie, but he is so strung out,” “who was it that said, ‘the world is my oyster’? / I feel like a nympho stuck in a cloister,” “Wicked wicked Wanda / I’d rather date Rwanda,” etc. Despite its silliness, “Hopscotch Willie,” a “classic example of a fall guy,” offers a classic example of the way Malkmus has some of the most interesting line-delivery sense since Lou Reed.
The straight-up great tracks are “Cold Son” (ah, those m/f harmonies), the pop-bopping “Gardenia” and its run-on rhymes (“well, you are a gardenia pressed in the campaign journal in the rucksack of an Afrikaner, etc”.) and “We Can’t Help You,” with its instrumental minimalism and lyrical largess. Of course, it’s not Malkmus going it alone. It’s his interplay with the Jicks — Janet Weiss handling drums (wonderfully, per usual) with Joanna Bolme on bass and Mike Clark on another guitar and keyboards — that allows the band to expand and contract. As on another standout, the opener “Dragonfly,” which moves from ominous psych fuzz to chirpy upbeat and then tiptoes (and roars) back. Another winner is that aforementioned epic (10:09) title track works itself into an emotional tizzy and sense of frolicsome ’60s psychedelic relief (road trippin’, pantin’ like a pit bull).
It’s fitting that one of the first lines in the album involves “my digressions.” We’re sorta on the fence with this one: When you sit down and closely study Real Emotional there’s some of that aforementioned amazing stuff going on, but it doesn’t entirely work as a straight-up listening experience. We know Malkmus is an uncompromising dude, but can’t help but wonder if he’ll ever cut out the chicanery and go for a straight-up weirdo pop album. In fact, some of our favorite material shows up in the second half, so it feels like he’s leading towards something smaller. Maybe. His (and Pavement’s and that early Silver Jews’) shit’s always been weird. That’s why it offers so much to love. Might be nice, though, if he was just a little more concise with his post-slacker tomfoolery.
Real Emotional Trash is out 3/4 on Matador.