As the main songwriter for Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has made a decade-long career of breaking down the whole into a mess of assembly-resistant parts. Smirking out his intoxicating, indecipherable imagery, Malkmus was a much-loved force in '90s college rock. Fans may not always have known whether they were being laughed with or at, but that uneasiness was part of Pavement's appeal. In a confessional era marked by artists with their hearts on their sleeves, Malkmus was a sphinx — distanced, cryptic, and untouchable.
Pavement broke up last year, but Malkmus continued to write and record songs at home, eventually enlisting the aid of fellow Portland musicians John Moen (drums) and Joanna Bolme (bass) to turn his musical sketches into an album. And what an album it is. Stephen Malkmus has all the barbed hooks and sweet chaos that Pavement audiences have come to expect. The record's many gleeful touches — the hand claps on “Phantasies,” the cowbell of “The Hook,” the toy piano and hootenanny screaming on “Troubbble” — make it his funnest work since Pavement's 1994 album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The LP's upbeat, accessible sound may scare some older fans away, but it shouldn't: Malkmus' requisite riddles and cerebral wordplay are still there, tucked behind the warmth and the sunshine and primed for oracular interpretation.
But for all the old games Malkmus plays on the record, he also offers something new and unexpected: a growing sense of storytelling. Yep, rock 'n' roll's detail man has arrived at the big picture(s), and he's eager to describe them. Whether he's singing about rampaging pirates, Yul Brynner, or a relationship between a high school student and a 31-year-old guitarist in a cover band, Malkmus spends ample time weaving his rapid-fire thoughts into slow-rolling stories. It's an expressive advancement, one that signals either a lengthening of Malkmus' attention span or a lessening of his fear of the ordinary. Either way, Malkmus emerges on his first solo record as a confident artist: still a sphinx, but one whose pronouncements become more intriguing as they become clearer.