Stephen Malkmus – ‘Traditional Techniques’ review: folky experimentalism and dad jokes galore

The former Pavement frontman, recently co-signed by new gen legend Beabadoobee, goes back to his roots on his fitfully inspired third solo album

Still basking in the glow of NME new gen hero Beabadoobee’s iconic shout-out on the Pavement-inspired ‘I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus’, underground indie God Stephen Malkmus has returned with his third solo LP. It’s a long time since his ‘90s heyday, and since his indie-rock reign continued into the noughties with The Jicks. If the pulse groove of 2019’s ‘Groove Denied’ threw you for a loop, his new album will throw you for another one. Afghani instruments, country and folk all make an appearance on his latest musical foray. He’s talked ‘Traditional Techniques’ us as ‘new phase folk music for new phase folks’.

Lead single ‘Xian Man’ is a country tinged banger, pivoting between Malkmus’ gritty yelps and melodic mumbling. Its instrumentation is deceptively effective, incorporating a snarling guitar riff and a killer solo to match (courtesy of omnipresent Chavez guitarist Matt Sweeney). These elements highlight the wonderfully minimalist poetry that underpins the song: You don’t need headlights to see / Open your mind back / To the love of Xian man.”

Standout track ‘Amberjack’ also shines, with its successful instrumentation and stunning lyrics. Aided with the arrangement skills of The Decemberists guitarist Chris Funk, the lyricism in ‘Amberjack’ subtly emphasise life’s absurdities. There’s something deeply intimate and spiritual about the choral swells and droning cellos that soundtrack the song. “This amberjack – let’s throw it back”, Malkmus sings resignedly of the titular fish, voice broken, observing the incredible emptiness around him.

Other interesting sonic combinations are well executed: unfortunately, they’re let down by uninspiring lyricism. ‘What Kind of Person’ is the most explicit about its exotic influences, being soundtracked by wailing flutes and rumbling cellos. Along with opening track ‘ACC Kirtan’, Malkmus is surprisingly successful at sewing these disparate worlds together; it’s a shame that the lyrics are so bland. Sure he could do better than: “Where are the rings for my sweet serviettes?” The problem is perhaps that Stephen Malkmus thinks he’s funnier than he actually is.

In some ways ‘Traditional Techniques’ is a welcome return to form, but the album isn’t nearly as innovative or as introspective as it makes itself out to be. Malkmus leaves behind a great legacy for the newest indie generation, but it’s hard to imagine Beabadoobee mooning over this rag-tag bunch of half-formed punchlines.


Release date: March 6

Record label: Domino