Review: Sparkle Hard by Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

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If you want to know if the new Stephen Malkmus is worth your time, and haven’t been won over by a Stephen Malkmus album in some time, I’d suggest you check out tracks #1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and then the entire album. Seriously, this is his best work in years.

Pavement remains one of my favorite bands, responsible for one of the greatest discographies ever. Just count em: four great albums and one fine swansong before sadly closing up shop. Sadly, but also wisely since contemporaries like Billy Corgan continue to embarrass themselves. And also appropriately! I can’t think of them being successful in any decade except the nineties. For one, all of their album titles read like 90s-isms, but sonically, Stephen Malkmus might have been the archetypal indie rock slacker (even though he rose above this label from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain­-onwards) while Slanted & Enchanted might have been the archetypal lo-fi indie rock album, all heavy toms and melodic undertones. Yet, with exceptions (notably his self-titled debut), Stephen Malkmus’ career outside of Pavement has rarely captured the same domestic escapism. The most recent ones have been some of his most average work yet, with Mirror Traffic offering only a few good songs amongst its unjustified 15-track length (“Tigers”, “Forever 28”) and Wig Out at Jagbags without the benefit of Real Emotional Trash’s jammier set-up or Mirror Traffic’s production from Beck.

Regardless, I’m always excited about new Stephen Malkmus product, because he seems to be able to whip up great melodies and lyrics that demand unraveling in his sleep. Quoting Bryan Charles’ 33 1/3 installation for Wowee Zowee, which it should be stated upfront is one of the best of the series that I’ve read because Charles weaves in autobiographical details and prose that are practically Malkmusian, “Malkmus releases great records every other year with no fanfare – twenty-one years in he’s never made a bad or even a weak one.” But Sparkle Hard – another Stephen Malkmus title if I ever heard one – also arrived the same day as Courtney Barnett’s and Parquet Courts’ follow-ups to their 2015 albums, albums that I loved dearly. (Both of these artists also sometimes sound like Pavement, either in Barnett’s lackadaisical melody-making or Parquet Courts’ general aesthetic – just look at the cover to Light Up Gold.)

But whereas Barnett somewhat disappointed after “Hopefulessness” (Slate’s Carl Wilson calls out one of the main reasons, “There’s little of her former dryly surrealistic play with syllables and word associations and, more worryingly, few of the idiosyncratic scenic and social details that distinguished her previous songs. The shift is so pronounced, it must have been a choice”) and Parquet Courts delivered a record that’s almost exactly of what I’d expected of them, Sparkle Hard wowed. It starts so unassumingly: a piano line that brings to mind songs like Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” or else David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, before the drums come in and the song segues to noise pop pastures and back again. Not an expected move from Malkmus, but also not unfathomable. But “Cast Off” turns out to be emblematic of the album’s eclecticism. Soon after, he taps Krautrock’s momentum on “Bike Lane,” pulls Kim Gordon into a postmodern country love song for “Refute” and dabbles in auto-tune for “Rattler.”

It’s not eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake: some of these turn out to be the album’s best. “Bike Lane” juxtaposes Malkmus’ forever-youthful voice with the heavy bass, in addition to contrasting with the grim lyrics of police brutality, “Another beautiful bike lane” turns into “The cops, the cops that killed Freddie / Sweet, young Freddie Gray / Got behind him with their truncheons and choked the life right out of him.” In the second verse, there’s yet another contrast as Stephen Malkmus turns the attention to the police: “Kick off your jackboots, it’s time to unwind.” So interesting to hear Stephen Malkmus join Kevin Morby (who sang about Freddie Gray on “Beautiful Strangers”) in the shortlist of indie rockers speaking out against police brutality; it was – again – an unexpected move for him. Elsewhere, “Refute” is so understated that I missed its beauty in my first few playthroughs, despite heading straight for it when I learned of the Kim Gordon collaboration. Malkmus is as playful as ever, singing “This is a verse about a man who dared / To fall head over heels for a woman who shared / Similar interests, similar looks / Similar taste in similar books.” On the other hand, Gordon’s words seem autobiographical; how else am I supposed to take a bridge that warns “The world doesn’t want you anymore” that follows a chorus that goes “Marry on?”

The experimentation keeps things interesting and is a rare and welcome sight for a musician in his fifties, but it’s the songs that aim for summer afternoon in the suburbs of “Gold Soundz” or “Range Life” that are his forte and the album’s best. There’s “Future Suite,” with its coda of overlapping voices, the string section of “Solid Silk.” And there’s “Middle America,” which might be the album’s most melodic cut, replete with typical Malkmusian rhymes (“You know you should be blushing / To a hue of Robitussin”) and lines (“Just kiss yourself metaphorically,” though I dislike how he stretches the word out and don’t think much of the following line either) and even a couplet that goes “Men are scum, I won’t deny / May you be shitfaced the day you die” that seems to show Malkmus’ solidarity with #MeToo. If there’s anything wrong with the album, it’s that producer Chris Funk – of the Decemberists fame – can’t seem to get as much of the Jicks heft-wise, such that the two long, multipartite tracks (“Kite” and “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels”) shift and seem exciting but then linger. A MINUS