Groove Denied is simultaneously Malkmus’ most unexpected and least captivating album.
As the ringleader of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus ran counter to the increasingly glossy output of mainstreaming indie rockers. The band’s albums were loaded with tracks that sounded ramshackle and uncoordinated, each instrument sort of humming along with the others without quite knowing where they were headed. This method heightened the old-school, garage-rock sensibilities of the group, passing off their deceptively complex songwriting as primitivism. Malkmus’s music is about as far away as one can imagine from the rigid, repetitive, beat-driven momentum of electronic music, which makes the artist’s latest record, Groove Denied, the most radical departure of his career. Inspired by his time in club-filled Berlin, the album incorporates Ableton sequencing and extensive synthesizers and programming for the first time in Malkmus’s work.
Yet if Malkmus felt driven to sample this kind of music after navigating the cutting-edge electronic scene of Berlin, his own contributions to the genre are decidedly more old-fashioned. “A Bit Wilder,” with its lurching, brittle industrial beat, more readily resembles the more floor-ready days of Cabaret Voltaire or the toned-down ‘80s electro-goth of Suicide. Lyrically, the track is pure Malkmus, a word picture with missing pieces that is at once clear and opaque; “I want to join the tribe that you protect/ Distinctively unerect/ We think you suffered enough to burn.” Malkmus’s vocal delivery replaces his erstwhile spikes of syllabic inflection and emphasis for a deadpan, New Romantic croon. “Viktor Borgia” sounds like early post-punk experiments with DIY synths; the beats are rudimentary and buzzy, as if played through poorly grounded wires, and the drum machine sputters its way through its simple beat.
If Malkmus shows any penchant for electronic music structure, it is in his lyrical format, which relies more on repetition and soundbite impressions than his usual shaggy-dog fare. “Viktor Borgia,” for example, is a paean to the club as a place of escape, but Malkmus offers only superficial impressions such as a gay man “On a big winning streak/ Boys are raining on him.” “Forget Your Place” is more repetitious than any of Malkmus’s actual Fall riffs, with verses traded for the intonation of phrases, particularly the one that gives the track its title.
For all the hype about the artist going electronic, though, barely half the album truly explores this new terrain. The rest of Groove Denied is standard Malkmus fare, a mixture of retro psych and clanging garage rock. “Come Get Me” is fuzzier than a peach with its warm, distorted guitar and AM-radio scratchiness, while “Rushing the Acid Frat” is Beatles-esque psychedelic pop symphony. Malkmus sounds significantly more confident on these tracks, writing like a wry teenager with lines steeped in youthful zest shot with random signs of age like “Eventually/ We’ll get wine together.” “Love the Door” opens with glitchy loops that mark the most fascinating, unexpected electronic touch on the album, only to reform into a twanging bit of demented desert rock that retains enough of its mad electronic touches to emerge the album’s best, densest cut.
At his best, Malkmus is able to craft songs that in the moment seemed to have nothing to hold them together, only for them to suddenly morph into earworms when they were over, with every word and musical quirk stuck in the brain as seeming toss-offs revealed themselves to be pop gems. There’s none of that magnetic ability in Groove Denied. The material is intriguing, but even the best tracks fail to linger, and repeat listenings do nothing to make them resonate. Funnily enough, Malkmus’s biggest departure sounds the most indebted to his influences; unfairly dinged in Pavement for being a supposed Mark E Smith wannabe, Malkmus always brought his own idiosyncrasy to his forebears. Here, though, he so respectfully replicates the material of classic garage bands and Factory Records synth acts that the individual spark that sets Malkmus apart is fatally missing. The artist is incapable of making a terrible record, but Groove Denied is simultaneously his most unexpected and least captivating album.