The semi-famous man who wrote the semi-famous Gen-X anthem "Cut Your Hair," with its semi-famous scream against "No Big Hair!" sports a semi-shaggy mane on the cover of his new eponymous album. It's a more stylish retro-'70s model muss than an aging-rock star mullet, but still, Stephen Malkmus looks downright dreamy and starry-eyed on the cover, a bona fide rock star posing for the ladies. Has he become the Rod Stewart of indie rock? Perhaps. Yet, freed from his semi-legendary college-rock band Pavement (R.I.P. 1989-2000), Malkmus has made a solo album on which he sounds rather like his old band.
Of course, this is because Pavement was led primarily by Stephen Malkmus. The band almost exclusively featured his wry, puzzling and provocative lyrics, his endlessly inventive guitar pyrotechnics, and his prep-school-brat charm and hidden serious-artist aspirations. But most of all, solo, as with Pavement, Malkmus continues to transform the detritus of the past 30 years of guitar-driven rock into a vast reservoir of folk material for Gen-X slackers who still can't quite let go of that Linklaterian moment between youth and adulthood. On Stephen Malkmus, we get a typical assemblage of everything from cast-off melodies from Toto, to vocal sneers snatched from Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, to glorious guitar arpeggios reminiscent of Television, to a dozen other disarmingly familiar shards of rock culture.
At a time when many indie rockers seem more interested in fumbling with two turntables and a microphone or a digital sampler and a sound-editing program, Malkmus remains dedicated to a kind of indie-rocker credo. He just might turn into something like a latter-day, smarty-pants version of Neil Young, continuously scribbling out inscrutable odes and wailing on the guitar that pierced his tube-amp heart. Reversing that ill-fated Young lyric that Kurt Cobain quoted in his farewell note, Malkmus seems to feel that it's better to fade away than to burn out.
The key for Malkmus seems to be the guitar. While many fans obsess over his surreal, jarring words, Malkmus' solo album allows one to relish his six-string work just as much. In fact, the solo album suggests that the sound and feel of Pavement that indie rockers came to love was essentially the sound of Malkmus' six-string. Stephen Malkmus is stocked with chunky Keith Richards rhythm riffs, angular up and down scales, and a few soaring solos that mix pain and beauty, anguish and smirks, in the most compelling of ways. The wah-wah solo on "Jo Jo's Jacket" (rumored to be a critique of electronica ad campaign music supplier Moby) is a reinvention of psychedelic clich&233; as a mocking, jeering howl. And the solo at the end of an elegy for a friend who died young, "Church On White," aches with transcendent sadness as Malkmus plays a few climaxing notes repeatedly. It's as rawly earnest as Malkmus has ever let us hear him.
Most of the songs, such as "The Hook" and "Discretion Groove," chug along with Malkmus' guitar and strong playing from the rhythm section of drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme--two very capable Portland, Ore., musicians. But the most brilliant song on the album, "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog," suggests that Malkmus is up to something new. It's a virtual short story that tells of an 18-year-old hippie chick's brief love affair with an older man in a '60s cover band (without giving too much away, she eventually dumps him for sorority and pre-law life at college). The song marks Malkmus' turn from his John Ashbery "meaningful nonsense" poetry approach to a kind of outright storytelling. The ringing guitar, stomping beat, and eerily familiar melody reminds one of Pavement past. But the road is suddenly headed in a new direction, stretching down the highway instead of in delightfully odd circles.
Indeed, there are characters on Malkmus' new album, and they all seem to be running, getting out of somewhere, heading somewhere else. The characters in "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog" claim they'll "hit the ground running." In "Discretion Grove," Malkmus declares that, "it's all we do to run, run, run." Even if characters aren't running, their minds are racing. In the new wave-ish "Phantasies," Malkmus wants his listeners to "Tear off the top, let your memory pop/It's running, running running, running away." And if characters or their minds aren't on the move, the world around them is. In "Troubbble," Malkmus sings that, "the world passes by in a flash/From the birth of the earth/To the curse of your desperate math."
What it all means is hard to say. The meaning is not in the words themselves, but in the words as voice, as sound--twisted, snarled, giggled, and screamed out in Malkmus' inimitable voice, wrapping around his guitar, which pushes everything onward in search of something. What? Something. The pleasure of soundwaves, maybe, that reverberate back through rock culture, affirming its sneaky persistence in the crackle of a guitar pickup, and drive it on into the "alterna-less" future. Or maybe it's something much less than that. Maybe all Malkmus and his new bandmates are doing is "chasin' performance and several moods," as he sings on the album's closing track, "Deado." Maybe that's enough.