Back in the early nineties, when indie rock’s secret passions were shared in ‘zines instead of online, Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus was a cryptic wiseacre with a gift for making his mumbles echo like manifestos. He wasn’t shy about it, either: “I’ve got style, miles and miles,” he once sang, “so much style that it’s wasted.” By the end of the decade, he actually began wasting all that style, softening Pavement’s angularity into loose-limbed artiness on 1999’s Terror Twilight and in the distended live shows that followed. By last year, when Pavement finalized a breakup as oblique as its lyrics, it was hard to tell whether Malkmus’s music would ever feel effortless again.
His solo debut, Stephen Malkmus (Matador), doesn’t sound so different from late-period Pavement, but at least he’s regained his smart-ass swagger. As his backing band, the Jicks, shambles all over his hummable melodies, Malkmus deadpans about Alaskan voyages, Yul Brynner (“I’m not what you think I am / I’m the king of Siam”) – even an abduction by pirates. And while his lyrics might read like nonsense, they also dare you to parse them and seem to stare you down if you can’t. At the end of “Jo Jo’s Jacket,” he even throws in a few lines from Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” apparently just for the heck of it.
Malkmus really gets serious only on “Church on White,” the emotional center of the album and one of the few directly heartfelt songs he’s ever written. It’s an elegy of sorts for his friend the late novelist Rob Bingham, but it also seems to encompass the things Malkmus struggled to keep with him as he grew into and then away from Pavement. Over a lilting tune undisturbed by the kind of fragmented guitar on the other tracks, Malkmus sings: “When you’re hot, you’re hot / And when enough’s enough / Do the fakers drop out? / Promise me / You will always be / Too awake to be famous / Too wired to be safe.” The song could almost be read as a code, a shared secret in a world where it’s easy to lose touch with your promise and the confidence it once gave you. Of course, with an artist as elliptical as Malkmus, it’s hard to know for certain. And the distinct possibility that those lines simply popped into his head one day is what makes this album exciting.