Stephen Malkmus – S/T

The notion of a Stephen Malkmus album is still somewhat of a foreign concept to me, despite the fact that I’m holding the jewel case and listening to the album. After all, for a decade Malkmus and Pavement were not only the poster-boys of indie rock, they were a tower of undefinable mythology on par with at least Zeus. The band (especially their first two albums) were just too good. The band with the unlikely anthems crafted a mystique so impenetrable that I always assumed them indecipherable. Pavement, and especially Malkmus, was never something I wanted to understand. I just turned up the volume and chanted “Forty-Million Dollars!” in an off key drone that put even Malkmus’s sleepy-eyed non-sequiteurs to shame.
Therefore, a solo album presented a possible glimpse into the mortality of a band and a singer which I never wished to uncover. But because I’m a sucker for summer melodies and glorious fuzz I grabbed Malkmus’s solo debut on its release day, hoping for perhaps nothing more than a few good tunes and a shadow of Pavement, a band that will be sorely missed.
As expected, the sound of this album does vary all that much from your typical Pavement release. After all, the band that Malkmus freed himself of was not all that constrictive in the first place. There are some differences: gone are jammy songs and weird song structures. All of these songs follow the verse-chorus-verse structure of a songwriter who didn’t have to listen to many ideas besides the ones in his head. Fortunately, Malkmus is a decent critic, and on the whole, this album is more listenable than at least a couple of Pavement albums, end to end. There’s really not a bad or boring song on the entire album. “Phantasies” rides a hilariously annoying falsetto through a chorus just catchy enough to make the song fun. “Jo Jo’s Jacket” finds Malkmus imagining himself as Yul Brunner, for better or for worse. Other songs, like the incredible “Church on White” take on a far more serious tone, coaxing around death before sending a flare to the sky with an actual solo.
“Troubbble,” which clocks in at just under two minutes, contains the most unabashedly silly keyboard riff in recent memory. “Jenny & the Ess-Dog” is one of the album’s best songs – it tells the tale of a romantically skewed relationship between a 31-year-old bar band member and a college-bound high school girl. Its vague goofiness lends itself to insights into relationships you might not find on a Pavement album: “They could not make up for distance, or these distance between their years.” Strangely enough, there’s little irony in Malkmus’s voice, despite the killer melody and strange lyrics. “The Hook,” another one of the album’s best songs, is even stranger. The lyrics start with an abduction by Turkish pirates, move on to exaggerated violence (“if I spare your life it’s because the tide is leaving”), but by the end of the song, Malkmus sounds remorseful and (*gasp*), sincere as he admits his guilt: “We had no wooden legs, or steel hooks, we had no black eye patches, or a starving cook/we were just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor.”
So does Malkmus go Elliot Smith on us? Not exactly, but he does occasionally sound sincere, and this album contains enough summer hooks and nonsensical lyrics to stay in constant rotation. Quite frankly, as much as I’m sure he’d hate to admit it, Malkmus has crafted the next best thing to a Pavement album. Quite frankly, the singing and instrumentation are so good on this album I’d almost be willing to call him a singer/songwriter. In fact I will. Say what you want about Pavement and the breakup, but Stephen Malkmus has emerged as one of the most unique, fun and ingenious songwriters of his generation, with or without a band backing him.