Slacker rock's elder statesman just can’t stop writing great songs
“We lived on Tennyson and venison and The Grateful Dead,” sings Stephen Malkmus on ‘Lariat’, the third track on his sixth album with the Jicks, adding another food pairing to the menu that’s already given us oysters and dry Lancers wine on Pavement’s ‘Shady Lane’ and sag aloo with gin and tonic on ‘Pink India’ from 2001’s ‘Stephen Malkmus’. This time though, the 47-year-old is matching his food with the books and records from his past on an album that sees him squinting through rose-tinted specs at “the music from the best decade ever” (‘Lariat’ again), and writing tunes devoid of the sourness and inertia that characterised much of late-period Pavement and his solo career.
It makes sense that Malkmus finds it easier to look back now. It’s more than ten years since he was showered “with oceans of the past” and found “there’s no time to breathe” on ‘Ramp Of Death’ from 2003’s ‘Pig Lib’. Since then he’s survived the Pavement reunion in 2010 (even if he didn’t seem particularly present for a lot of it) and left Portland for Berlin, where his wife now works as an artist while they bring up the kids. ‘Wig Out At Jagbags’ is the sound of a man who finally has enough distance – geographically, psychologically – for nostalgia, even as he knows he’s too old to do it all again. “I don’t have the stomach for your brandy, I can hardly sip your tea”, he sings on ‘Independence Street’. “I don’t have the teeth left for your candy, I’m just busy being free.”
Freedom for Malkmus means freedom from expectation and freedom to get old comfortably, and ‘…Jagbags’ is in many ways the album equivalent of a pipe and slippers. “I’ve been you, I’ve been everywhere you’re going,” Malkmus advises those bands following in his taillights in ‘Chartjunk’. He’s now made more albums with the Jicks (six) than he did with Pavement (five), but it’s hard to imagine a new generation of musicians getting into Pavement through the Jicks. Partly because Pavement’s influence is still everywhere – just listen to 2013 newcomers Parquet Courts or Speedy Ortiz – and partly because Malkmus clearly doesn’t want to be in a second cult band. Instead, ‘Jagbags’ is the product of an elder statesman who can’t stop writing great songs.
And make no mistake: ‘Jagbags’ has some great songs. When writing with the Jicks previously, Malkmus’s more experimental tracks have had a tendency to dwindle into aimless jamming. But here he tightens the screws a bit to make 12 purposeful, concise tracks. ‘Rumble At The Rambo’ is such a glorious send-up of a scene – in this case, a punk rock band reunion – it calls to mind Ben Fold Five’s ‘Underground’, complete with falsetto, while ‘The Janitor Revealed’ is so delicate in its treatment of narrative that it could, if it weren’t for the razor guitars and Malkmus’s distinctive drawl, belong to Belle & Sebastian. ‘J Smoov’, with its understated brass and fading acoustic finale, sounds like it was written wrapped up in scarves in a cold park in Berlin while the children played on the swings. This is a family-friendly record.
Even the title is family-friendly. On his Tumblr, Malkmus writes that a Jagbag is “a smeared aspersion, not profanity”. He also writes that moving to Berlin meant he could cease to exist, something he describes as a liberating fantasy. “But after two years there, we were starting to exist,” he says. “It was like an average birth, without pain.” Average, without pain: it might as well be the tagline to the album.