For a few days now I’ve stressed over this new Malkmus album, without a word to write or a place to start. No doubt I would’ve had a better time of this twenty years ago, when the Richard Brautigan in him was excused by the Mick Jones in him - which is to say that the dirty melodies ripped apart by gigantic hooks provided spectacle enough; we could ignore his, ahem, ‘poetry:’
Doctors leaving for the holiday season
Got crystal ice picks, no gift for the gab
And in the parking lots
Is the sedan he bought
He never, he never complains when it’s hot
He phoned the fallen daughter
In the sauna playing contract bridge
They’re soaking up the fun or doing blotters
I don’t know which…which…which…
Boys are dying on these streets
I know the medical world could knock you out
This is not high modernism, days measured in line slack. It’s filler spechensang from a guy who won’t or can’t talk about himself. But to reiterate: that’s okay. The song kicks like a motherfucker anyway. In fact it’s one of Pavement’s best. But I challenge you to tell me which it is; or in what manner its riff builds into rocket fuel insanity by song’s end.
By the time you eventually figure out I’m talking about ‘Grounded,’ I can promise you’ll have forgotten the part about the ice pick and the parking lot. Nothing Malkmus says sticks to the bones in quite the same way the verse of other celebrated, ahem, ‘rock poets’ do. I know you know every lyric in Bringing It All Back Home, and even the lesser Velvet follow ups. Themes help; selfsame poetic logic does too. Oh, and plot.
Only a chariot could carry it
Across this void
I wouldn’t jerry rig or candy coat your Latin kisses
Echoing, maybe?, the same sentiments as this:
’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Neither makes sense; neither is all that poetic. But one is a hell of a lot more fun and memorable than the other.
So now you know my only gripe with Pavement, a band with as close to a perfect LP (not to mention EP) catalogue as there ever was. Malkmus doesn’t say shit.
And, now confronted with his sixth (SIXTH! One more than Pavement’s five!) solo effort (yes solo; I don’t know nor do I approve of these, uh, Jicks characters. Is that some kind of slur? It sure sounds like one), I’m finally out of meaningful things to say myself. What else can we say about Stephen Malkmus that’s new in light of “Fuck Around at Jagoffs,” or whatever he called this record? That he’s a brilliant guitarist (the riff on ‘Planetary Motion’ sounds, like, orbital. It’s enough to make you think he heard ‘Asteroid’… almost), that he’s a lazy sod, too lazy to clean the tub (pop culture reference! Sometimes he does those), or a guy who dicks around with his own lovely melodies (a virtue in Pavement, realized like a broken gear shift in Wowee Zowee now imminently frustrating in the absence of those hemi charged hooks), and scatterbrained (look at all these stupid parenthetical clauses!), or finally that he’s the de jure granddaddy of indie rock (Pitchfork’s biannual 7.0+; their answer to RS’s Springsteen)?
It wasn’t until a doctor’s checkup - just an hour or so ago - that I realized maybe I had something else to say. And no, not because my doc upped by half my legal dose of attention meth, though that’s surely not hurting matters. I left with one of his new melodies floating around, new pills in my hand, finally feeling kindred with this man, old enough to be my father but playful enough to be my kid: Stephen Malkmus definitely has ADHD. Yep. He’s tweaking all the time, and “Goof off at Gangbangs” proves he’s off or never had access to his meds.
I’m postulating here for a few reasons.
One, Pitchfork may not know the first thing about his music, but they know a lot about him. This is his third or fourth LP consecutive to have been hyped by one of their minion interviewers. Front page coverage. Candid if not exactly charming, Malkmus is no Dylan two times over: he’s a regular dude who grants an honest and moderately insightful interview. Those obfuscatory lyrics? No longer cocksure over here that he’s a scheming recluse or secretly deeper than TS Eliot and somehow fronting a few weird rock bands. Maybe he’s just… wanting for a little narrative focus?
Second, despite a subtlty that betrays the slow and inevitable downshift of a stoner domestic, the arrangements in “Rock Out in Cock Out” are as rangy as he is, all 6’4” 135 pounds of him, or as all of Wowee Zowee. “You’re afraid of me / doing the jester blue / speak of arrangements, baby / but you haven’t got a clue / for all that I do I know,” Malkmus admits in probably the most honest song of his life: “J Smoov,” a mispelled reference to Detroit Piston Josh Smith (aka: J Smoove) that builds on quiet brass - the kind of stuff ska visionaries will cut when they’re grandfathers - into a climax (subtle, old, strange, rangy) that outdoes the twenty-something orgasms in both “Grounded” and “Pueblo.” Did I mention he also say something about himself? Finally?
More time with “Kick Jams out Sans Crabs” may reveal further autobiography, but I’m not sure I need to hear it. When you start believing Malkmus has ADHD, you soon notice he traded in those old hooks for an idiot-savant guitar. Every track here steals a riff just enough for you to feel vague pangs of relational memory, but (classic Malkmus) the reference is so lazy and half-baked you’ll never place it unless by accident. Hell, maybe that’s how he does it. On accident. He does have ADHD after all - his brain is everywhere.
For instance: “Rumble at the Rainbo,” could be on Sandinista Now!… but only if the Buzzcocks made it before the Clash. “Chartjunk” is that time the Beach Boys toured with the Dead, and together sprang an improv jam on the Bay audience. “Scattergories” is what Wilco could have been if they’d listened to more Pixies and less… hehe, Pavement.
Oh, wait! One more honest lyric: “We grew up listening to music from the best decade ever / talking bout the ADDs.” So this line means about a thousand things. Malkmus grew up listening to music from the 80s, which is exactly what you think he’s saying at first: the 80s and not ‘the ADDs’. Except everyone knows, Malkmus the stoner grandpa not the least, that the 80s sucked something awful - what with Reagan, institutional racism, class warfare and Van Halen and all. So that can’t possibly be what he’s saying. Maybe instead he’s mimicking his young fans? Talking about the ADDs, after all. Meaning… the hyper-medicated millennials. If this is true, then the 90s was the best decade ever. Fair enough. Clinton was cool, and we had Pavement.
The point is: it’s not clear which decade he’s talking about, just as it’s not clear always what kind of music this old brat is playing, alluding to, ruining, or mimicking. We’re talking about the ADDs, remember? In any case, soon after he dispatches this wonderful little lyric, his guitar wigs the fuck out at all you rude jagbags who want to hear more Pavement. Then there’s a piano, which plays us out all weird like. The effect is relational… I mean, it sounds like something I’ve heard before, but not exactly Pavement. But not exactly bad either.
Pretty good, actually.