opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER
Once you’ve established a publicly accepted identity, is winning over new fans even possible? Pop culturally speaking, the longer a show, book, band or movie has been in existence, especially those with a fringe fan base, the chances that a consumer is going to experience an epiphany and join the bandwagon late in the game are practically null. To achieve that sort of 2nd act commercial success, artists have to change their product – it worked, to varying degrees, for the likes of U2, Radiohead, Nelly Furtado and Pink Floyd.
In the case of indie legend Stephen Malkmus, age 47, he definitely isn’t cool anymore – not by any traditional measuring stick anyway, and probably not even by his own Pavement-era standards. He’s a family man living in Portland for God’s sake. Not that he cares what you think. Malkmus wears his identity like a badge of honor throughout the solid Wig Out at Jagbags, his new album with The Jicks. When he sings, “No one here has changed and no one ever will,” on standout track “Rumble at the Rainbo”, it sounds like the musical equivalent of a money-back guarantee.
In that respect, it’s rather fitting that the perpetually almost-canceled, beloved TV comedy “Community” returns in the same five-day span as Malkmus drops Jagbags. In many regards, the two wholly unrelated entities are soul mates as they re-enter the collective conscious in 2014 during the annual entertainment wasteland often referred to as January. Both please small, rabid fan bases by doing the same clever, artsy thing over and over, and doing it exceptionally well, while accumulating an equal number of detractors who just don’t get what all the fuss is about.
The aforementioned lyric from “Rainbo” speaks volumes about how good you’ll think this album is. The degree to which you love the self-produced Wig Out at Jagbags depends on how obsessively you listen(ed) to Pavement and, subsequently, how appreciative you’ve been of the maturation process of Malkmus himself. “Rumble at the Rainbo” is a mid-career defining track, kicking off with the ironic, punk-tinged shout, “This one’s for you, Grandad!” before launching into the loosest rock track on the album, begging listeners to “come join us in this punk rock tomb.” It segues into “Chartjunk”, a boogie punctuated by horns that sounds like a cover of T-Rex or Spoon. “Lariat” is a jangly literate rocker, the exact song we’ve come to expect from Malkmus and, despite having written it hundreds of times before, when he sings “We lived on Tennyson, venison and the Grateful Dead” it excavates the same goosebumps you got the first time you heard “Gold Soundz” or “Cut Your Hair”.
Casual fans and nonbelievers likely will find Jagbags redundant and slightly boring. Even diehards will find that the albumoverstays it’s welcome in the lazier, messy second half in which too many songs inhabit the same slow-to-mid-tempo college rock vibe (the drowsy “Independent Street” and the meandering, The Who inspired album closer “Surreal Teenagers”) . “Scattergories” is enough to embarrass even the most hardcore fan as Malkmus name drops board games and the crafts an early candidate for most horrible line of 2014, “Condoleeza’s rice scattered on the floor.”
In the current commodity-driven music environment, it’s easy to forget that not all notable artists create content with the mission of winning converts, nor do they crave becoming more accessible to those that don’t get it and never will. It’s what makes headstrong entities like Malkmus and “Community” brilliant in spite of their flaws. It’s a singular, unwavering confidence. They don’t give a fuck what you think – they are who they are, and they think they’re pretty great.
Warts and all, Jagbags is a good, not great album. Malkmus is still wry, he’s still clever and the music is still casual yet coherent, and as long as he’s those things the music he produces will be worth a listen. As a whole, it’s looser, quieter and more satisfying than anything Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks have ever recorded, but it also sounds like a rearview looking relic, which again, seems to be the point. Like the return of “Community”, Wig Out at Jagbags lands locked and loaded, ready to please the Kool-Aid drinkers among us. You’re either in or you’re out, and you already know which side you’re on. For the thirsty among us, enjoy. [B]