When Pavement reunited for a series of major shows in 2010 after splitting a decade earlier, frontman Stephen Malkmus indicated that it was a one-time affair, and nothing he’s said since has afforded any more hope to the indie nation that continues to venerate the ‘90s band. End of the asphalt — for real? Apparently.
As consolation prizes go, though, Malkmus’ new album, “Mirror Traffic,” is a corker.
His fifth post-Pavement album unites him for the first time with another alt-rock golden-age icon, Beck, whose sharp production instincts result in the crispest, coolest, most user-friendly sounds Malkmus and his band the Jicks have come up with.
It’s old home week for ‘90s indie-rockers in concept, but in spirit, the album couldn’t be a fresher, less laurel-resting affair.
Gone is the jamminess of some of Malkmus’ other recent work — except for what jams can be squeezed into songs that average a borderline-poppy three minutes in length. Missing, also, are the pointed eccentricities of some other Beck productions. You get a bit of brass here or synths or steel guitar there, but these deft touches are understated and disappear like fleeting pop-up balloons.
Beck seems to be having even more fun accenting the extremes of Malkmus’ eternally playful guitar tones, whether that entails angular cleanliness or delightfully ungodly fuzz.
As usual, Malkmus’ lyrics tend toward an amusing stream of consciousness that’s highly quotable from couplet to couplet but largely incomprehensible when it comes to overall themes. The opening lines of “Tigers” – “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks/A scary thought” – let you know just what kind of wit (and odd rhyme schemes) you’re in for.
No one else provides reviewer bait quite like “I cannot do even one sit-up/Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie/I’m busy out spending your money.” Sammy Cahn, eat your heart out.
Evidence does emerge of Malkmus’ attitude about nostalgia, and it’s not pretty. At times, you might figure he’s forming a lyrical reaction to last year’s Pavement tour, except “Mirror Traffic” was actually recorded right before that 2010 summer outing – but maybe some of these songs hint at how he was dreading revisiting the past.
The very title of “Forever 28” has a slightly accusatory tone, as if to suggest that some of his contemporaries (he’s 45) might still have their heads mired in the alt-rock glory days of the ‘90s. “The wait now is over – you’re stuck in the mud,” Malkmus sings. He takes a shot at his own malcontent tendencies: “Such a buzzkill, yes I am/I kill momentum when I can/There’s no parade I cannot rain upon with my poison eyes/Kill me!” (He refrains from taking a cue from his producer and adding “I’m a loser, baby.")
“All Over Gently,” the most coherent lyric on the album, is one of the few splitsville songs ever written to argue that – contrary to what Neil Sedaka contended in 1962 – breaking up is easy to do. “Good when it started/Still pretty good/Stay if you wanna, but I don’t think you should,” he sings.
It gets funnier: “It’s all over gently/The sweetest goodbye/Sweet little sassafras, I want you out by July.” Ostensibly, he’s addressing a girl, though it may not be a huge stretch to imagine he could be saying ciao to a band or a scene.
Much has been made of how difficult Malkmus’ musical instincts can be for the unprepared ear, and there are moments here, like in “Long Hard Book,” where a chord progression suddenly seems to shift to an alternate plane… in mid-chorus. But what’s more striking is how utterly accessible most of these numbers are, from the two-minute punk-rocker “Tune Grief” to the nearly R.E.M.-level tunefulness of tracks like “Stick Figures in Love.”
The musical standout, “Brain Gallop,” could even fit in on classic rock radio, with its bluesy (and, yes, galloping) 6/8 chorus, spiraling twin guitar parts, and vintage Rhodes-style keyboards, especially if the DJ helpfully sandwiched it between a pair of Grateful Dead classics.
Malkmus has put off Pavement, again, but it’s clear with this sharply honed charmer of an album– a good introduction for first-timers, and something old fans will likely see as a return to form – that he doesn’t want to put us off.