Malkmus is showing us that he has nothing left to hide.
From the beginning, Stephen Malkmus has been shockingly adept at making what he does look remarkably easy. Since Pavement released Slanted & Enchanted in 1992, he’s spent a great deal of time learning to balance being a Type-B slacker with being a genuinely great musician, resulting in an effortless everyman aesthetic – “I’m not looking for a guy to turn my third-place medal into gold,” he sings here on “Kite,” which effectively captures the state of Malkmus in 2018. Beneath that, though, beats the heart of someone with a dynamite instinct for satisfying songcraft, which has sustained him for nearly 30 years over various projects. In the documentary about Pavement, Slow Century, Malkmus even admitted to these sensibilities with a wink: “I think I was smoking a lot of grass back then. But to me, they sounded like hits!”
Sparkle Hard, the seventh studio album from Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, is perhaps the most easy-to-love album that he’s put out under his own name, and further toes that line between too-cool and catchy-as-hell. It feels bright and airy in just about every moment, intent on using krautrock and yacht rock building blocks to explore whatever impulses he might want to pursue – and, as Malkmus is a great songsmith, these urges tend to lead to great things. He may stumble at times, but even his failures are still charming; the jury is still out on whether we needed the Auto-Tune vocals name-checking Facebook on “Rattler,” but even that Auto-Tune doesn’t feel out of character for the album (an effect that will return much more subtly on “Brethren” later). Malkmus’ time spent obsessing over Can is on full display here, with hypnotic grooves working their way through songs like “Bike Lane” – perhaps the album’s best track – and the second half of closer “Difficulties /Let Them Eat Vowels.” Elsewhere, he’s downright groovy, like the lush booty-shaker “Solid Silk,” which is pure ‘70s throwback front to back. Despite how loose everyone on the album sounds, Sparkle is a deceptively tight album where even those motorik beats don’t wander forever. In fact, it’s tight almost to a fault: the holy pairing of Malkmus and former Sonic Youth frontwoman Kim Gordon on “Refute” feels like the inclusion of a mildly-unnecessary interloper, a tacked on addition to an already great song.
Malkmus, at his core, is a cryptic songwriter – this has been a fact since “Lies and betrayal/ Fruit-colored nails/ Electricity and lust” on Slanted & Enchanted – and for better or worse, this fact is still true on Sparkle. New to the mix is a certain modernity; take “Bike Lane” for example: “The cops, the cops that killed Freddie/ Sweet young Freddie Gray/ Got behind him with the truncheons/ And choked the life right out of him,” he sings. It’s a stark contrast with the hands-off approach he’s long taken (outside of the blowjob-referencing Mirror Traffic track “Senator,” of course) to getting too political on record, and though he never so pointedly crosses that line again on Sparkle, he does include a subtle #metoo nod in “Middle America”: “Men are scum, I won’t deny.” It seems limp, but it’s just how Malkmus talks about things. Elsewhere, he’s more characteristic: “You’ll never see the butter-side of this daily bread,” he sings earlier on the groovy “Solid Silk,” a line that is as head-scratching as it is satisfyingly oblique.
Saying an elder statesmen of music has “nothing left to prove” when they put an album out is a boring cliché at this point. With Sparkle Hard, though, Malkmus is showing us that he has nothing left to hide – it feels far more assured of himself in a way we haven’t seen from him in quite some time. It is at once incredibly breezy and well-constructed, unconcerned with appearing like he cares too much about good songcraft, but still willing to sing about being content with bronze. It’s a good look for him, as Sparkle stands tall in the musician’s catalog, and worms its way into your heart – and ears – with every repeated listen.