Stephen Malkmus - S/T
I was halfway through my fourth effort at reviewing
Stephen Malkmus' self-titled solo debut and growing
more frustrated by the second. See, I had no idea
what to say about this album. On the one hand, there
were parts of it I really liked. On the other hand,
there were parts of it that fell really really flat.
On the whole, the album was just goddamned befuddling.
Was I even supposed to be thinking about Pavement? I
mean, this isn't Pavement, this is Stephen Malkmus, but
there were parts where I couldn't help going "you know, I
remember this working so much better on "Wowee Zowee"
than it worked here". There were other parts where I
thought "God, I wish Pavement had had the guts to come
this close to expressing an actual, clearly defined
idea and/or emotion". (Yes, I often include the
and/or in my stream of consciousness. Also, sometimes,
when I finish thinking something through, think "QED".)
So I did what I usually do when I'm stuck...I looked
around and checked to see if anybody else had some
clearer, wittier opinions I could thieve from them.
The problem is, most of the reviews of "Stephen
Malkmus" were even more baffling than the album
itself. For the most part, it didn't seem as if the
reviewers had actually listened to the album, or to
any of the Pavement albums to which they were
comparing it. Honestly, it looked as if they'd taken
Matador's press release and a coupla chunks from
interviews with SM and just reworded them. and I
guess that isn't a bad way to go, if you're trying to
score a job in the Matador propaganda department or if
you're a 20-something chick trying to text-flirt with
Malkmus. But what if you're trying to write a review
that is true?
What's confusing is, first of all, there are parts on
this album where Stephen Malkmus seems to be trying.
This I did not expect. I expected Steve Malkmus
slouching, Steve Malkmus deadpanning lies, Steve
Malkmus screaming, Steve Malkmus cursing, Steve
Malkmus ranting about grudges, Steve Malkmus jumping
around, but not Steve Malkmus showing *effort*. It
was like watching through binoculars while the coolest
slacker on the block tried to be a gentleman in front
of his girlfriend's parents. The display caught me
The way I've always pictured SM's life goes pretty
much like this: so he gets out of college. He
doesn't really want to do a hell of a lot, but he
pretty much has to do something. He bums around
working shit jobs and sleeping on couches and then at
some point he and some friends start to make music
that a lot of people get really into. So they all get
to have a second aimless youth as they carve out their
niche in the American college music scene/fake
revolution youth movement. By the time "Brighten the
Corners" (which I liked but which most people won't
admit to liking anymore) and then "Terror Twilight"
(which I loved but which almost nobody else admits to
even remembering) came out, Pavement's days as the
wandering slackers had pretty much ended. Those two
albums were about that, and then they broke up after
some mild histrionics at a show in the UK.
After the first several listens, "Stephen Malkmus"
felt like it was Stephen Malkmus, coming to terms with
the fact that he can't be a poster child for the
trustfund slack-hip of the mid-90s for his whole life.
At the same time, he's too smart to think that's a
persona you can shed all at once, and so the album was
still laced with typical SM Pavement-era antics. He'd
deny this, just like he denies that Pavement lyrics
mean anything. But the fact is Pavement lyrics and SM
antics both mean about the same amount, which is to
say that both mean whatever you care to build out of
them. In both cases, he just kind of does or yells
some stuff that comes to mind and then he's too
goddamned slack to help you put them together into any
kind of order. It's like when you are moving bigass
boxes up stairs and your roommate just lays on the
couch watching Battlestar Galactica re-runs, smirking.
The fact that Malkmus is sometimes sincere on the
album isn't a problem. It's kind of endearing. And
the fact that he sometimes reverts back to what is
expected of him isn't a problem either, although it
feels more scripted now than it did in the "Wowee
Zowee" days, almost like on his lyric sheet he has
penned in "be wacky here, fifteen seconds....okay next
His new musical accompaniment, Portland-area
musicians and scenesters he calls The Jicks, are very
good musically. There's not much of a dynamic between
Malkmus and the various Jicks on the album, which is
one of the only negative comments I have seen in
trying to find opinions online to steal. But then
again, there isn't supposed to be. If there were
supposed to be a group dynamic, I imagine the album
would be by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, not Stephen
Malkmus. The parts in "Phantasies" where the girl
background vocals come in make me grin everytime I
hear them and, up until the third time in three hours
I listened to the album to try to figure out what the
hell to say about it, made me giggle. "Phantasies" is
an absurdly catchy pop song with lyrics that come just
close enough to literalism to end up being pleasantly
demented. It probably should have been the first
single off the album. (Yes, Matador, I know, I should
probably just start my own record label and then I can
release the singles in whatever damn order I please.)
"Jennifer and the Ess-Dog" is this ballad about an
aging slack hippy and his rich girl girlfriend who
dumps him after she goes to college. It's
tragi-comic. It may speak ill of me but I personally
find that the part "and Jenny pledged Kappa and she
started pre-law/and off came those awful toe rings"
hits me harder than any ten Bright Eyes zingers. It's
a very good song and I have forced virtually everybody
I can in any way shape or form coerce to listen to it.
"Jo Jo's Jacket" is funny. Ha ha. It's about Yul
Brynner. Ha ha. It's kind of like stringing together
a whole bunch of Malkmus' between-song shit-talking
and putting it to music and making a song out of it,
only instead of being about Billy Corgan it's about
another self-obsessed bald man. He pretends he is Yul
Brynner, saying silly things about his movie career!
It has a reference to being tied down and forced to
listen to house music as a form of torture. Ha ha.
Take that, Spin magazine! Seriously, I'm not being a
sarcastic motherfucker...this song has made me openly
guffaw every single time I've listened to it.
Okay, but see the problem is that there are a lot of
really flat moments on the album, and worse. It was,
as I have already said, befuddling. Sometimes it all
came together so well and other times it all went
nowhere. Counter-balancing "Trojan Curfew", a very
successful song about Greek gods and fading youth were
songs like "Blackbook" which sounded a little like the
kind of nightmare Kafka might have had if Kafka had
been in the UVA bar scene at some point in his life
and also been a bad writer.
Then, just a moment ago, "Hook" was playing. "Hook"
is a very catchy song to which, it seems, SM forgot to
write an ending, in the sense that it just breaks off
3/4 of the way into the narrative. It's about, umm, a
guy who was kidnapped by pirates and eventually got to
be a pirate captain. And I was kind of shaking my
head and singing along because it's pretty catchy and
then it hit me. THIS SONG IS REALLY "HARPER VALLEY
PTA", ONLY IT'S ABOUT PIRATES!!! I'm serious.
Listen to "Hook". Then download "Harper Valley PTA"
from Napster, and listen to it. "Hook", on "Stephen
Malkmus" is really, in some bizarre way, just the
theme song from a bad late-70s early-80s drama/comedy
about a liberated single mother in a prudish town.
Only, you know, with pirates and bloodshed.
And that is when it all made sense. "Oh," I said to
myself, "he's just fucking with you. Again." The
album has some good songs. It has some songs with
feeling and some songs that are infectious and some
songs that are funny as hell. And then it has some
songs where he's just fucking with me. Fucking with
you. Fucking with Matador and with the guys on the
Pavement message board who toss and turn nights
worrying whether SM and Nastanovich and DC Berman are
really still friends and ever have drinks together
A friend of mine who saw Pavement live more than
anybody else I know and who saw SM solo at a live
show, summed it up best. She said, "if the crowd is
close to being into SM, he will really ham it up. If
they're already into him, he will be all coy and
aloof. If there is no chance they are going to get
into him, he'll either just put on the shittiest
performance possible or he'll just get all hyper and
pretend they're not even there. That's how he was in
Pavement, that's how he was when I saw him, and that's
how he probably is just in general." And that's how
this album is. In some songs it feels like he is
trying to win the audience over. In some songs it
feels like he is flaunting the control he has over the
room. And in some songs, he's just saying "fuck you,
get the joke or go home". If you want to like the
album, he gives you a chance to. If you don't want to
like it, he gives you a chance to be driven away.
To sum all this up, if you were really into Pavement
all the way through, this is probably going to appeal
to you. If you liked the Hip Pavement albums but not
"Brighten the Corners" or "Terror Twilight" then it's
a crap shoot. If you didn't like Pavement, don't bother.
And if you have never heard/thought much about
Pavement, then there's a good chance you'll like
enough of this album to get curious enough to go
listen to some Pavement.
Stephen Malkmus, I'm sorry, but this album is only
moving forward for people who are pretty into
Pavement--and if you were pretty into Pavement then I
think you can pick out the parts on this album where
there has been growth and change and which are a good
sign that SM will probably have a pretty rich musical
life after Pavement if he wants one. But if you
aren't, then this album is, at best, a taste of what
Pavement used to be.
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