Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
For over twenty-five years, Stephen Malkmus’s music has been tethered to the subgenre of slacker rock—tunes for aimless Gen Xers of the 1990s that were ostensibly born in a cloud of pot smoke, and that were premiered live at college dropout parties. Malkmus has since become the Ambassador of Slack, both during his reign as Pavement frontman and his current post with The Jicks. And yet, his long tenure as a productive member of the music industry tells another story. After five Pavement records and five solo LPs, he’s yet to release a stinker, and Sparkle Hard, his latest offering with The Jicks, isn’t about to sour Malkmus’s signature scent.
Sparkle Hard possesses a little bit of everything Malkmus does well, from heart-snatching guitar hooks to wistful ballads and psych-rock wig-outs. But Malkmus doesn’t stop there—he chucks in spare parts from disparate genres, and the unlikely hybrids work well. Mid-album prog jam “Rattler,” for instance, finds Malkmus’s conversational voice dressed up in Auto-Tune. His vocals are elongated and flutter like hair ribbons lifted by a warm breeze. The effect is oddly intimate, evoking a human wah-wah pedal rather than a SoundCloud rapper or Top 40 pop star.
Another joyful sonic outlier is a duet with Kim Gordon on “Refute,” which finds the pair swapping verses about middle-class banalities atop country fiddle. But while Malkmus has clearly proven he’s no one-trick pony, he continues to perfect his longtime knack for writing music that is effortless, witty, and deeply affecting. “Cast Off” and “Solid Silk” find the songwriter at his most laid-back, the former opening with a pared-down piano phrase and vocals that crackle like the first drag on a cigarette. “Solid Silk,” meanwhile, doles out hearty folk twang peppered with classic Malkmus witticisms such as: “He’ll never see the butter side of his daily bread.”
“Bike Lane” is the record’s most lyrically minimalist song, yet its content presents the highest stakes. Malkmus contrasts the image of “another beautiful bike lane” (a space of elevated importance in Portland, where he lives) with the death of Freddy Gray, the twenty-five-year-old African-American man who was killed by Baltimore police officers in 2015. It’s an unlikely but effective turn for Malkmus, who sharpens his self-awareness to a twinkling point, then uses it to deflate the perceived importance of first-world problems.
But it’s “Shiggy” that is the colossal highlight of Sparkle Hard. The arena rock anthem finds Malkmus at his sweetest and most sneering, spitting out lines that curdle as they leave his mouth. “Don’t speak your dumb wisdom,” he snarls. “I’m not so easily confused.” His guitar-playing is similarly bittersweet, and a mid-song solo is as bright as it is gritty, emitting a radioactive glow. If Sparkle Hard makes one thing clear, it is this: In all his years in the biz, Stephen Malkmus has never actually been a slacker—he just makes writing great songs look so damn easy.