I think it’s safe to say that Stephen Malkmus the solo artist has outlived the legend of Stephen Malkmus the dude in Pavement. His output with Pavement, which lasted between 1992 and 1999, was five Pavement records, several singles, and two Silver Jews albums(I’m sure there were one-offs here and there.) From 1999 on Malkmus has released seven albums under his own name and with the Jicks, two Silver Jews albums, a live record covering Can’s Ege Bamyasi, and some tracks on Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There soundtrack.
More than the work, though, Stephen Malkmus has become this singular character in the world. The dude that so doesn’t care whether he’s cool or not that not caring has made him cool. If he feels like going thru a scarf-wearing phase then by God he’ll wear scarfs. And he’ll do it with zero irony. He’s a doting dad and a devoted husband and has no problems taking his kids to school and buying groceries while his wife works. He has no qualms discussing his Pavement glory years but doesn’t long for those indie rock beginnings, nor does he find them precious. He’s a go with the flow kind of guy and that’s what makes Malkmus so damn endearing.
Well, that and the music.
For me it’s been a journey to find my in with Stephen Malkmus. While I appreciated the work he did with Pavement, Brighten The Corners was the only album I truly dug. It wasn’t until Real Emotional Trash, his 2008 album with the Jicks, that I locked in with Malkmus. I don’t think the guy gets enough credit for his guitar work. He’s actually a pretty brilliant player, and Real Emotional Trash is a prime example of that. He’s also a hell of a songwriter, too, but I’d lock into that later.
On Sparkle Hard, his seventh album post-Pavement, Stephen Malkmus does what he does best: he writes catchy(and quirky) pop songs. To my ears, this is his best album in ten years. This record is a near-perfect amalgamation(or a-malkmus-mation? sorry) of everything that’s come before, but with a newfound focus and deft sonic touches that brings the Jicks into the now. Not all of those touches work for me, but for the most part this is a brilliant album.
Album opener “Cast Off” begins beautifully with acoustic piano and Malkmus singing in earnest before his guitar rolls in like a storm-a-brewin’ out at sea. That guitar tone is legendary, and thru the years he’s honed it in to laser precision. This de-tuned and crushing sludgy riff that emanates from a variety of Fender guitars is really what pulled me in. “Cast Off” is classic Malkmus and the Jicks. “Future Suite” is all wonky rhythms and tasteful melodies. The guitars almost have an Allman Brothers tone to them. Very Pig Lib-era Jicks. “Solid Silk” is a big and bold, with a dreamy quality in the strings layered over top.
There’s a couple tracks Malkmus breaks out the auto tune, and while it doesn’t completely ruin the songs for me it’s not really something I’d want to hear more of. “Rattler” is a good track that’s held back by modern tricks for the tone deaf singer(you can sing, Stephen.)
There’s plenty of future classics on here, too. “Shiggy” is all buzzing riffs and summertime feels, while “Middle America” might be one of Malkmus’ best songs since “Vanessa From Queens”. It’s the breezy, sentimental track we need from Stephen Malkmus right now. “Kite” and “Difficulties-Let Them Eat Vowels” are the big epic tracks that show Malkmus’ love for letting songs work themselves out, regardless of how long it takes. There’s also an amazing country-tinged, whiskey-burnt track called “Refute” that he duets with Kim Gordon on that is essential listening. It sounds like A.M.-era Wilco, but with Malkmus’ deft touches.
I still may not completely get Stephen Malkmus, Pavement, and all the historied weight that comes with the early 90s indie rock they helped to define, but that’s okay. I have fully come to realize and appreciate the gangly genius of Stephen Malkmus. I see his place in the rock canon, and Sparkle Hard stands as one of his best albums yet. There’s growing old gracefully, and then there’s growing old graciously.
Malkmus is definitely the latter.
8.1 out of 10