Sentimentality probably isn’t high on [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a]’
list of favourite feelings. Here’s a man, after all, who once described himself as, “A cold, cold boy with an American heart”, and who’s more likely to draw inspiration from the smallprint of a footnote than the broad strokes of human passion. Public displays of emotion? Positively declasse.
Still, it’s been a shock to see how callously he’s abandoned Pavement, the tremendous band he fronted for a decade. They were the sly darlings of the international pop underground who proved intelligence could be a laugh. The band to blame for legions of lo-fi college bands, not to mention at least one of Damon Albarn’s mid-life crises. For this much, thanks.
The work of the sniffy, cruel head boy who sacked the band and killed the dream, it’s easy to approach this solo debut with apprehension. Especially since the last two Pavement albums (‘Brighten The Corners’ and ‘Terror Twilight’) featured a relatively morose [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a], clearly wearying of his group’s pranks. ‘Stephen Malkmus’, though – produced by the man himself under the pseudonym Clarence Skiboots – is far from sour and mature. Don’t be misled by the stern wallow of opener ‘Black Book’, designed as a transition from heavier pastures. When the whooping travelogue of ‘Phantasies’ sets off on a world tour of the absurd, it’s plain he’s written his brightest, funniest, quite possibly best set of songs since 1994’s outstanding ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’.
Liberated from the monkeys on his back, [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a]
seems determined to have a good time, so long as he can bring his library. The physical comedy of Pavement’s live shows might be consigned to the past – no more barking drummers, sadly – but the power of songs full of angles and improbable stories is clearly more irresistible than ever.
Take ‘The Hook’, that reveals [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a]
as a fearless sea dog, kidnapped by pirates at the age of 19 (“If I spare your life it’s because the tide is leaving”) and the fact the whole farrago’s a metaphor for touring becomes secondary to the vivid bullshit of his yarn-spinning. Likewise the woozy ‘Pink India’, that channels Malkmus’ extensive reading on the British Empire into a tale of foppish gentleman adventurers, the Raj, “a nice sag aloo” and, with an immaculate wry flourish, a “crap gin’n’tonic”.
The classic British response would be that he knows far more than is good for him. But [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a]’
subtext, more than ever, is that intelligence doesn’t have to equate with earnestness. There’s plenty for partying and thesis-writing here, a sound every bit as warm and wayward as Pavement (check ‘Cut Your Hair”s belated sequel, ‘Jo Jo’s Jacket’). The brand name may be changed, but the spirit’s revitalised.
That’s [a]Stephen Malkmus[/a], master of the clever and stupid and giving smart-arses a good name since 1991.