Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Mirror Traffic
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: August 23, 2011
We hear a lot about the genius of tortured artists, troubled souls with typically tragic stories who somehow possess an almost supernatural knack for leaving indelible impressions on their craft. Sad circumstances seem to surround such spirits, building a mystique that often supersedes their actual output. While I respect and admire their contributions, as they rightfully deserve, I'm usually not quick to hop aboard the bandwagon with the legions who praise them as "legends," or whatever. A guy like Stephen Malkmus is much more my style, bedheaded in a rumpled shirt, wryly observing the world with a shrug. He didn't exactly invent indifferent posturing-- it goes at least as far back as The Jesus and Mary Chain, and probably farther-- but he did perfect it to the point where it's pretty much been the blueprint for indie-rockers to follow from the moment the first nerdy kids heard the distorted opening riffs of "Summer Babe".
Mirror Traffic, Malkmus's fifth post-Pavement album, is proof that the singer, now 45, hasn't lost an ounce of what made him an iconic figure in the '90s. That quavering voice-- perhaps a shade smoother with the passing years, though still unlikely to earn him an invitation to be the fourth tenor any time soon-- is nevertheless unique and unimistakable, as well as an essential element of his songs. His trademark bright, jangly guitar lines propel each of these new songs as well; anyone who heard that fellow slack motherfucker Beck would be manning the boards for this album and was expecting another Face the Truth may well be disappointed, but fans of Wowee Zowee or even Malkmus's last album, Real Emotional Trash, will probably really enjoy its sound. Unlike it's predecessor, Mirror Traffic lacks a ten-minute guitar workout-- though there is no shortage of nifty licks to air-strum along with-- but it is a similar collection of what's begun to earn the tag "dad rock." Given that the semi-pejorative has been hung around the necks of Wilco and The National, I for one would wear it like a badge of honor. Malkmus should too.
While his lyrics at times reflect a station in life quite different from the current crop of blog bands-- "40 with a kid, living on the grid," he sings on "Share the Red"-- his laid-back apathy still seems as much a perfect fit for aimless quarterlifers as Pavement's timeless anthems. Even when waxing political about environmentalism, class warfare and scandal on "Senator", Malkmus can't drum up anything close to resembling outrage. Zack de la Rocha he isn't. His surroundings seem more like a source of material rather than a source of any feelings in particular. Hey, it's worked all along, so why change now? In short, this is a (slightly) more grounded Malkmus, but still very much Stephen being Stephen, which is very much how we-- or at least I-- like him. On "Brain Gallop", he asserts, "There's not much left inside my tank." For most any other artist, such a claim might suggest a musician preparing to hang up his guitar. For Malkmus, it's simply a blase statement of fact by someone for whom it seems a little is more than enough.