It’s possible that time will be kinder to Pig Lib.
The dissolution of Pavement was anything but sudden. As time wore on, Stephen Malkmus cast such a shadow over his bandmates that it was only a matter of time before he left the trappings of a band behind and struck out on his own. Both Pavement’s swan song Terror Twilight and Malkmus’ self-titled solo debut feel like the songwriter testing the waters, waiting to see if fans would be interested in his solo ventures while also trying to figure out how to make records that don’t sound like Pavement without the rest of Pavement. As it turns out, the third time was kind of the charm in that regard; Pig Lib is where the break from Pavement happens, and it marks the true beginning of Malkmus as a solo artist/uncontested band leader. It also, for better and worse, serves as the point where Malkmus awkwardly enters middle age.
In the early part of his career, Malkmus’ songwriting balanced sincerity with highbrow snark. Pavement albums often featured beautiful moments of wistful longing featured alongside minute-long dickarounds that purposely went nowhere. That confrontational, mischievously juvenile streak was left behind on Pig Lib, replaced with a more laid-back, meandering silliness that one would equate with jam bands over punk-inspired art rock. The light, airy “Vanessa from Queens” and the twisting “Animal Midnight” are more goofy than biting. Malkmus’ sincere side, on the other hand, is still very much intact, producing one of his finest moments as a solo artist. “Us” is a thing of beauty, affecting in the obtuse manner that only Malkmus can master. Its carefully orchestrated harmonies also show a moment of the Jicks working as a band rather than a collection of backing musicians, something that Malkmus was eager to show occasionally to the detriment of his songs.
Stephen Malkmus is an excellent songwriter, but expansive jam band epics aren’t really his forté. When the Jicks stretch out on songs like “1% of One” and “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster,” they display a fair amount of technical skill, but they lack the passion and dynamic that one associates with the best aspects of jam bands. At no point does Malkmus ever cut loose; most of Pig Lib is precise and measured, the Jicks functioning like surgeons going through a routine procedure. As a result, Pig Lib is the sort of record that becomes difficult to fully embrace, as it always appears to be holding the listener at a distance.
As a one-off, Pig Lib would have worked in Malkmus’ solo catalog. However, this is the record that has really colored his solo efforts going forward. Each Malkmus album since has become jammier and jammier to the point where he attempted to make his own Grateful Dead record with 2008’s Real Emotional Trash. It seems sometimes as if Malkmus thinks that writing more of a song will give some of his ideas some heft, where in reality that’s just not really the case.
It’s possible that time will be kinder to Pig Lib. With indie rock going through an uneasy appreciation affair for formerly unhip jam acts, one could argue that Pig Lib shows Malkmus being ahead of the curve on any coming Deadhead revival. However, Pig Lib doesn’t really embrace either side of Malkmus’ style. It’s too loose and meandering for indie rock, yet it’s also too staid and structured for a jam audience. Pig Lib is, in effect, a wholly unique record in a particularly unpleasant way; it just doesn’t seem to have been made for anyone other than Malkmus himself.