Stephen Malkmus – Face the Truth

Stephen Malkmus
Face the Truth

One would think that the confines of quirky indie-pop songwriting would catch up to a guy after more than a decade in the business. And on Pig Lib, Stephen Malkmus’ previous effort with backing band the Jicks, it seemed that the venerable indie veteran had hit a wall. Enter Face the Truth, Malkmus’ latest effort, an excellent album graced by the kind of clever hooks, lines, and sinkers that color Malkmus’ best work, be it with Pavement or the Jicks.

Face the Truth starts off with “Pencil Riot,” and immediately the listener knows something’s up; spaceship synths dance around a tin-soldier drum roll while a heavily distorted guitar squelches at will. Malkmus’ discovery of synths seems to have sent him enough of a breath of fresh air to reinvigorate his previously stale songwriting talent. But, far be it for him to hatch an unfledged synth-pop band. Malkmus uses these electronic flourishes tastefully throughout Face the Truth; synths pop in now and again like a friendly but unobtrusive neighbor, adding nice bits of color to the songs without overwhelming their structures – in other words, dropping off a nice Jell-O mold without inviting themselves over for an unwanted dinner.

“It Kills” is one of Malkmus’ finest and most eclectic songs; the moods in the song range from a melodramatic opening solo to a sunny verse melody to a transcendent bridge to quasi-reggae strumming. This kind of dense business is a hallmark of Face the Truth; Malkmus absolutely packs every song with as many variations, vocal or instrumental, as is humanly possible within a verse-chorus structure. Here is where the Jicks’ songwriting talents come in; rather than allow a second verse to unfold exactly like the first, the Jicks do a nice job of changing up the drums, inserting a new bass line, or freshening up the guitars. The result is an album of potentially endless replayability; Malkmus gives the listener plenty of room to explore the individual quirks and idiosyncrasies of his music.

Other highlights include the rollicking “Baby C’mon,” album-closer pop gem “Malediction,” and the eight-minute “No More Shoes.” Whatever doubts I had as to Stephen Malkmus’ ability to sustain interest for eight minutes were completely erased upon listening to “No More Shoes”; Malkmus mixes up solos with vocal melodies, crescendo for subdued bridges, all while stubbornly refusing to return to the opening verse until the end of the song. “Mama” completes the trio of remarkable songs on Face the Truth (alongside “It Kills” and “No More Shoes”) with an irresistible guitar slide in the verse and trademark Malkmus vocals – ostensibly about nothing in particular, but somehow still radioactive with hidden meaning: “Momma’s in the kitchen with onions / daddy’s in the back with old Hank / talkin’ bout the lasers and bunions / no we didn’t have too much money / just enough to make our dead ends meet.”

Some will undoubtedly be disappointed that Face the Truth does not mark a return to Stephen Malkmus’ Pavement days, but its significance as a step forward in songwriting for a 39-year-old veteran of the scene is encouraging. As with any other of Malkmus’ finest works, Face the Truth is a highly nuanced, eclectic treasure chest of brilliant ideas. Indeed, that Malkmus is competing with his 20-something indie icon ghost is high enough pressure; unfortunately for him, Face the Truth has raised the benchmark once more.