Stephen Malkmus – Sparkle Hard: “Fundamentally nice”
As lead singer of Pavement and regular contributor to the Silver Jews, Stephen Malkmus – the man with indie’s most affable voice – was in not just one but two legendary ‘90s bands. If that rarity isn’t spectacular enough, he’s also one of few icons of that vintage to make it to 2018 without either dying or sullying his legacy by releasing terrible music. But while generations of new artists have founded their careers upon the casual, sun-lit slacker rock that Pavement perfected in the ‘90s, Malkmus has spent this century so far refusing to rest on his considerable laurels. First solo and now with the Jicks, his new work has generally been more meticulous, more serious, and more experimental. Yet there’s no escaping that it has also been less exceptional, and while it might be impossible for a richer, older, wearier Malkmus to make anything as effortlessly brilliant as Slanted & Enchanted or Crooked Rain Crooked Rain again, Sparkle Hard shows, ironically, that that’s not for a lack of trying – this is Malkmus’s best album this millennium, the enjoyable sound of Malkmus having fun applying his considerable talents to various musical experiments and contemporary issues.
Sparkle Hard begins with ‘Cast Off’, a palette-cleanser led by plaintive piano that’s light on lyrics but high on dramatic flourishes. Then we drop into ‘Future Suite’, where Malkmus low-key flexes his considerable skills as an arranger. With an unintuitive 7 beats in the bar, the band find an enticing groove that creates space for Malkmus’ elasticated vocal melody deftly. There’s silly synths, references to “good vibrations”, and two guitars simultaneously soloing in this odd time signature, yet it all works – this is the sound of a musical genius having fun.
‘Bike Lane’ is one of the album’s most thought-provoking tracks. Malkmus discusses the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in notorious circumstances after being arrested by Baltimore police. Gray was well enough to flee from the police when they initially arrested him for (legally) possessing a knife, but after 40 minutes in which he was seemingly beaten and driven around in the back of a van without a seatbelt (illegally), Gray was found comatose, with a broken neck. He died a week later. Malkmus uses Gray’s story to contrast the concerns of the socially-conscious white middle classes – luxuries like the provision of bike lanes – with those of the Black community – incompetent, brutal police. For an added layer of irony, the officers who arrested Gray were riding bikes when they first saw him.
It’s admirable that Malkmus wants to confront the complacency of his own community, but it’s debatable whether he fully succeeds. He infantilises Gray – “Sweet little Freddie Gray” – and casts him as doomed to an early death – “his life expectancy was max. 25”. I don’t think this a helpful or accurate characterisation of Black Americans, and focussing on Gray’s early death as something inevitable rather than a preventable and unacceptable decimation of potential is surely wrong. And while it’s one of Malkmus’s great strengths as a lyricist that he never advertises the point he’s trying to make, the obliquity of his rhetoric is perhaps unsuited to tackling such an important, overtly political topic like this.
Never mind, ‘Middle America’ follows and is possibly Malkmus’ sweetest post-Pavement song. It has all the shambling grace, wistful optimism, and emotional delicacy of a Malkmus classic like ‘Grounded’, with three jangly guitars weaving a gorgeous backdrop to Malkmus’ morsels of wisdom as he meanders in and out of falsetto. Again we find Malkmus wading into contemporary popular politics with twitter-like aphorisms, most notably with the observation “Men are scum, I won’t deny”, which is pretty much spot on.
The second half of the album is more experimental, using the style established in the first half as a base to explore new territory. ‘Rattler’ and ‘Brethren’ both indulge in auto-tune, with the former sounding particularly like a Rostam track. It would be easy to freak out about this in itself, but auto-tune suits Malkmus’ casual Californian delivery nicely. Second single ‘Shiggy’ aims for pure power, so much so that the life is sucked out of it somewhat, with a hard-nosed bassline facing off against washed-out cymbals and a squirting guitar lick, as Malkmus vents at twitter trolls “Don’t speak your dumb wisdom, I’m not so easily confused”. ‘Kite’ and ‘Difficulties / Let Them Out Vowels’ both go prog, with sleek mood transitions and fleet-footed synth and guitar jams. ‘Let Them Out Vowels’ finds Malkmus playing with a vocoder and adeptly ripping the vocal melody from the Beatles’ ‘Good Morning Good Morning’. This is wacky, fun stuff – Malkmus sparkling hard.
But by far the most interesting track in the album’s latter half is ‘Refute’, a duet with Kim Gordon, seminal bassist and vocalist of Sonic Youth. What should a Gordon-Malkmus collaboration sound like? I don’t think anyone’s first guest would be a sentimental country ditty featuring lap steel and fiddle, but that’s what you’re getting. Malkmus’s verse is a pastiche of a pedestrian love affair founded on “Similar interest, similar looks, similar taste in similar books”, but the tryst described by Gordon is different, a bourgeoisie-obliterating lesbian relationship with her au pair, built on Ritalin, Egon Schiele prints, and shared French fries. It’s funny to hear two of modern alternative music’s foremost progenitors taking the piss out of a style that’s decades behind them, and to some extent themselves with the lack of seriousness here, but whether this a song one could earnestly enjoy is another question.
In a year when Jack White went far, far too outside the box on an experimental solo album that ended up being a disaster, Sparkle Hard is to be applauded for remaining tethered to reality enough to make things work while straining on that leash enough to keep things interesting. But as much as this album reaches off in unexpected directions, its first half remains rooted in a comfortable, sparkling rock that is fundamentally nice. A musician as talented as Malkmus, I think, can do better than nice, could surely still deliver more edge, more iconoclasm, and experimentation that is forward-thinking rather than wacky. But nevertheless there’s real quality here – strong hooks, interesting lyrics, and artfully-yelped vocal melodies. Malkmus’s contemporary topics lend these songs a vitality that their style can sometimes lack.