Malkmus Unleashes Real Emotional Trash
The toughest challenge a successful musician faces when releasing a new album is walking the fine line between developing artistically and retaining the specific sound that fans fell in love with the first time around. Occasionally, an act will gracefully dance from record to record, pulling in new listeners while keeping devotees happy, pleasing critics and gathering accolades. More often, however, an artist will sway to one side, delivering either too many of the same old tricks, or a record so foreign that fans dismiss it after one listen.
Unfortunately for Stephen Malkmus, his latest effort falls into the latter category. Since the 1999 breakup of his former band, Pavement, Malkmus has released three solo albums, each one creeping farther and farther away from his lo-fi roots. Slated for release on March 4, Real Emotional Trash will mark the singer-songwriter’s most radical departure yet.
Malkmus’ solo work is rocky territory for the hipster crowd: while he is a godfather of the indie rock scene, a lot of his new stuff is (heaven forbid!) jam-heavy. Chock full of bluesy guitar riffs, cymbal pounding bridges and extended solos, his latest album seems a bit caught up in the excesses of the mid-1970s progressive rock movement — a far cry from the garage-pop meets surfer-rock style that Pavement coined back in the early 1990s.
That said, the instrumentals on the album aren’t half bad. Malkmus’ guitar playing was never the prime focus in his Pavement days, but this guy sure can rock. And it’s not just Malkmus — the guitarist’s interplay with the Jicks (Janet Weiss on drums, Joanna Bolme on bass and Mike Clark on keys) allows the album’s sound to expand and contract, to shift between folk-pop playfulness, heavy metal grandeur and southern rock sincerity.
Malkmus’ tunes retain the trademark quirkiness and eccentric lyricism (“I traipsed over the Mexican border in a cheap caravan, man”) that helped Pavement achieve mainstream success without the support of a major record label. But it is not recommended that the listener try to discern meaning from most of Malkmus’ lyrics — one should simply appreciate his wordplay (“I love to watch you watch your weight”) or revel in his imagery (“panting like a pit bull minus the meat”).
Despite their lyrical inaccessibility, Malkmus’ abstract associations still seem to convey emotion ten times better than actual description would, which makes it tragic that his words are so sparse.
His newfound commitment to Caravan-esque jams leaves little room for Malkmus to do what he does best; the album really shines when he stops worshipping the higher prog power and delivers his poetry over a few simple chords. The most bare-bones tracks on the album — “Out of Reaches,” “Cold Son” and “We Can’t Help You” — are certainly among the most enchanting, contemplative songs Malkmus has recorded.
In the end, Real Emotional Trash is an album too mired in rock and roll’s past, and not enough in Pavement’s. Malkmus’ latest effort takes a new direction personally, but to the listener, it is too unexpected and comes across as a lackluster attempt to recreate the timeworn work of Emerson, Lake & Palmer.