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Stephen Malkmus Cracks A Sonic Code, Putting The '90s Behind Him

Mar 5, 2020
Originally published on March 5, 2020 9:50 am

Last year, the rising indie singer-songwriter Beabadoobee released a single called "I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus." In it, she sings about staying at home crying to Pavement records, and wanting to attain anything close to Malkmus' seemingly effortless cool as the leader of that band. Beabadoobee was born in 2000 just a few months after Pavement broke up, and the song is a good indication of the band's lasting position in the indie rock canon — always a more pervasive reference point than contemporaries like Guided By Voices, Sebadoh or Archers of Loaf. But as much as the song is flattering to Malkmus, it's notable that the younger artist writes about him only in the context of his old band. His solo albums, which span 20 years and far outnumber Pavement's by now, do not come up.

This isn't a big deal in itself, but it is indicative of the dilemma facing legacy artists, especially those who used to be at the center of a beloved band: How do you get people to pay attention to your current material when most people know you for what you did decades ago? Whether leading his band The Jicks or performing under his government name alone, Malkmus has been lucky enough to maintain his reputation as a respected songwriter in a way that can elude a lot of musicians in the same position; check his solo career against that of, say, The Replacements' Paul Westerberg, Pixies' Frank Black or the non-Smashing Pumpkins work of his old '90s rival Billy Corgan. But as his discography has expanded, there has been an inevitable attrition in audience size and critical attention.

A lot of this comes down to his Jicks-era material being incredibly consistent, almost to a fault. He's become a more polished musician over time, but he's never lost his cerebral stoner vibe or his easy way with melody, and each of his records from 2001's Stephen Malkmus up through 2018's Sparkle Hard were full of well-crafted, witty and often poignant work. To long-term fans that was rewarding, but it was a trickier proposition for people in the media and record industry, who had to find a way to package it all. Malkmus' career resisted narrative in this phase: His records were all very good but also quite similar, and he never had a massive failure or flop to come back from. "Talented guy is still talented" is a boring story, and it seems he knew this — because in the past few years he has found a new one to tell.

In 2017, after a few years away, Malkmus had multiple projects in the works. He'd originally planned to come back with Groove Denied, a set of solo home recordings with far more electronic elements than had ever appeared on one of his records. His longtime label, Matador Records, opted to release the more polished and traditional Sparkle Hard first, and pushed the Pavement-esque ballad "Middle America" as a single with the goal of reintroducing him as an artist. In interviews for that record, Malkmus dropped references to the "electro" album Matador had supposedly rejected, building up audience curiosity around the riskier release. Laying the groundwork for Groove Denied in this way paid off well: When the record was finally released in early 2019, the existing narrative around it made it easy to talk about, and set critics and listeners up to be sympathetic to a raw, quirky set of songs that might have been panned under different expectations.

Which brings us to Traditional Techniques, out March 6, conceived after both Sparkle Hard and Groove Denied were completed but written and recorded between their releases. In aesthetic and conceptual terms, the new album is the opposite of Groove Denied: an almost entirely acoustic work rooted in various strains of folk music, performed with guest musicians and recorded by The Decemberists' Chris Funk, with a cleaner and more fastidious style than Malkmus' norm. The dynamic swing sets up an easy comparison with the previous album, while the folk premise makes it stand out in his catalog and may well draw in new listeners. Best of all, being pushed out of his comfort zone has resulted in a set of songs unlike anything he's done before in a career spanning three decades.

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Malkmus is hardly the first artist to group his work by aesthetics or give an album defined parameters of style — but it does feel like he's cracked a code here, not just for improving his commercial narrative but for moving forward artistically. Groove Denied was a stylistic curveball with its heavy use of synthesizers, samples, vocal processing and drum machines, but hardcore collectors of B-sides and bootlegs know he's been recording demos in this way since the late '90s. The songs on Traditional Techniques represent a bigger creative leap, and experiment with sounds that are entirely new for him: flutes, bouzoukis, tabla, sitars, gently plucked 12-strings, languid pedal-steel drones. In some ways, it's the most normal-sounding record he's ever made. But filtered through his distinctive voice and lyrical sensibilities, the straightforward pastoral loveliness in songs like "Brainwashed" and "Signal Western" feels slightly surreal, and the exotic acoustic instruments a little uncanny.

As always with Malkmus, the lyrics stand out. Traditional Techniques continues a thread from the previous two albums of absorbing words and ideas from social media into his heavily abstracted writing style, less to keep up with the kids than to serve a long-held interest in the peculiarities of quotidian details. "Shadowbanned," a playful number with a winding Middle Eastern melody, sounds like a jumble of arcane prophecy and references to Reddit and TED Talks, with the title phrase uttered like it's an ancient curse. The song is funny but vaguely unsettling, with lines like "Amazon wheat fields and rivers of Red Bull" and "All hail the once and future kween, may the word be spread via cracked emoji" coming across like dispatches from a post-apocalyptic world utterly devoid of dignity. "Peak interaction, never a dull moment," he sings in the refrain, sarcastically distilling social media's entire essence.

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There's no sense of dread or doom to this music, but there is a weary cynicism to Malkmus' writing, manifested in caricatures of guys who are dubiously confident, characters who spout transparently performative expressions of spirituality and a pervasive feeling that we're all living through a profoundly disappointing time. The protagonist of "Brainwashed" is heartbreaking but also highly relatable as he makes a plea for oblivion in the midst of all this: "Please take these old thoughts away," he sings in a fatigued tone. "I could care less where they land — I'm on the open idea plan."

The album's finest track, the country ballad "The Greatest Own in Legal History," is one of Malkmus' prettiest compositions ever — and also the moment where this record's folky aesthetics make a sharp intersection with his Pavement mode. Writing from the perspective of a depressed, sleep-deprived small-time lawyer, attempting to land a young client with the promise that he can't possibly lose the case, he sings in a plaintive lilt: "I'll be there to vet the jury / Make sure there's a couple softies on our side / They'll see their own kids in you / Their empathy will go a thousand miles wide." The character tries to seem noble, but there's an overwhelming pathos to him that makes his boldest declarations ring hollow, like he's hoping you'll buy his shtick even if his heart's not fully in it. Malkmus is writing with a fair amount of irony here, but not enough to undermine the ache at the center of this song. If you were ever going to sit at home and cry to a solo Malkmus tune, this is the one.

Matthew Perpetua is a freelance writer and the founder of Fluxblog.

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