Stephen Malkmus - S/T
Matador Records

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 off-guard.
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 verse".
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 anymore.
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.
...ron provine...

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