Friday, March 14, 2008

Daddy's on the run

I can give a few reasons why I think the new Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album, Real Emotional Trash, is the best thing he's done in quite a while. (Here and elsewhere in this post, you will have to excuse obvious evidence of raging fandom.) One is pretty straightforward: Janet Weiss. Malkmus has simply never had a drummer as good as this, and she stiffens up the sinews of his famously loose music in a way it didn't know it needed. And her backup singing (I think it's her; could also be Joanna Bolme) is great too.

The backing isn't the only unusually strong aspect of Trash, though it's likely to get the most attention; in a perfect public sphere the album ought to direct some fresh attention to Malkmus as lyricist, and particularly as metrist, as well. I mean, it's no secret that the man is good with words, but at this point it's become a critical cliché to call his lyrics "casually brilliant" or "stream-of-consciousness" or "surrealist," and while these adjectives might have legitimately applied to the writer of Perfect Sound Forever or even Slanted and Enchanted, I think they tend to underplay what a craftsman Malkmus is capable of being. He gets compared to Ashbery and Wallace Stevens sometimes when critics reach for literary reference points, and fair enough, but one could make an equally strong case for Malkmus as the Thomas Hardy of rock: composer of unprecedentedly weird, sometimes fussy stanza shapes, into which he squeezes the sentiments and occasional observations of a wry, resigned Everyman. The problem is, he often shoots himself in the foot by not filling all of his schemes in all the way; such are the occupational hazards of specializing in crossword puzzle rock. Either that, or he gets bored with the patterns so quickly that he's on to some recondite variation thereof by the second verse, or second recording.

All of which obscures the fact that Malkmus is, or can be, a great lyricist, in some very traditional ways. I'm talking about the basics: singability; colloquial ease; rhyme and meter; unexpected emotional impact. His previous high water mark, to my mind, is Brighten the Corners, which is not at all the best Pavement album (it's dragged down by thin production, indifferent playing, and a little something called "Passat Dream") but may be the best collection of Pavement songs, which is to say melodies wedded to lyrics. Real Emotional Trash is his best since then (again, speaking of lyrics only). I think critics have been deceived by the proggy surface and average running time of its ten songs into believing that this is another Wowee Zowee or Pig Lib: i.e., Malkmus in his meandering surrealist guitar-hero role. In fact, length creep has been a fact of Malkmus' oeuvre since Terror Twilight, a trend which extends to guitar solos, but the notable thing about Trash is its compositional polish: each song sounds finished to a degree that Malkmus sometimes doesn't bother to achieve. Far from being one of the weirder of Malkmus' efforts, from where I'm standing it looks like one of the most generically pigeonholeable: a good old-fashioned marriage-in-trouble record. (I have a few biographical reasons for thinking this, entirely circumstantial of course, and of course I hope untrue.) It's often noted that Malkmus is a husband and father now, but surprising that more people haven't picked up on the strange emotional overtones this gives his work, which on the surface has changed very little but which, I would argue, is beginning to deepen. Part of this is that Malkmus hasn't made the John Lennon move and given up his irony and whimsy for sincerity or sentimentality. If anything, his newfound sense of responsibility makes him sound even more distanced than ever (which may be a question of relative scale, since now we understand better what he's at a distance from). "Cold Son" and "Out of Reaches" (which really ought to be called "Out of Reaches Out") are two statements of this familial anomie; the title track (his first ever!) is another. At the risk of coming off like John Crowe Ransom writing for Spin magazine, I'd like to "read" that one carefully. (I've embedded the song at the bottom of this post. For maximum critical experience, I suggest listening along as you read.)

"Real Emotional Trash" begins in a manner similar to Pig Lib's "Water and a Seat," with a relatively simple, folky guitar riff (almost a scale) that manages to unsettle through slight variations in syncopation rather than through melodic development. Instead of veering into a spastic prog song as "Water" does, however, "Trash" stays restrained, presenting itself initially as a gentle midtempo piano ballad. (Geeky gear note: Malkmus apparently used one of Jeff Tweedy's Fender Telecasters on this song, and the wiry vulnerability of the guitar tone, as opposed to his usual fuzzy crunch, definitely lends it a special something.) The first two verses seem to be taken up with low-key worries about settling down into domestic anonymity: anxieties about becoming an abstract citizen — the kind of person who calls his wife "the wife" — beneath the abstract city sun. The words are a little mundane for Malkmus ("It's that kind of night," he sings, sounding like Billy Joel or someone) but also laced with dread: "Everybody talk, everybody listen, nobody breathe," the first of a few call backs to Pavement's classic "Stop Breathin"; "The trail has two ruts: one is just a tunnel, the other is a funnel to the tomb." The key line, though, is "Daddy's on the run," a phrase that would have been just so much sloganeering in a Pavement song, but which becomes strangely affecting now that we know the singer is in fact somebody's daddy. This is a good example of the weird games Malkmus plays with meter and their occasional affective payoffs: the original stretched out, plaintive, more or less iambic remark "Daddy's on the run," which sounds as if it were a child's observation — where are you going, Daddy? — is then sped up and run together into "Daddysontheru-uh-un," an adult's crazed blurt of irresponsible, unscannable glee: I'm on the run, bye bye kids, see you when I get back. It's two ways of looking at "Papa Was A Rolling Stone," or the theme to an indie-rock Rabbit, Run.

Then there's some dark riffing in the vein of "The Hexx" for about three minutes, leading into a simple, droning pattern that suggests the outro of, again, "Stop Breathin." At around the six minute mark the band breaks loose into a fast boogie vamp, over which SM, feeling "like a snake with five eggs stuck in my stomach" (I think this is what he's saying — a metaphor for pregnancy?), tells of some illicit-sounding hijinks in Northern California (and Mexico — see this ridiculous blog post for a chart of his progress) involving "painted ladies on house arrest." Here the lyrics get much more picaresque and concrete, full of place names and private references in the manner of Malkmus' legitimate inheritors the Fiery Furnaces, but also oblique in relation to the first two verses: is this escape something the speaker is actually accomplishing? Or just fantasizing about? Is the "you" who "spill[s] Chardonnay on your gypsy skirt" his wife, or his lover, or a member of his touring band, or what? It doesn't really matter, I guess: just the sense of release is what this section is all about. Even the obvious corniness of the choogling rhythm is earned: if making like Canned Heat is what the harried narrator of the previous verses needs to shake off his doldrums, then have at it. And if you can coin a readymade proverb like "it's the old fruit that makes wine" in the process, so much the better.

In the second half of this section the narrator seems to consider his own failure ("You got no reputation, never took a swing / Silent when they handed spines out") in a way that I have to try hard not to hear autobiographically. The repeated cry here ("Policeman!" — although the last iteration sounds more like "placement!") reminds me, and I realize I may be going way off the deep end here, of Malkmus' comments about the uninspiring Police reunion when asked about the possibility of Pavement getting back together. Of course, the "policeman" might also be "the wife," or an actual policeman putting an end to these middle-aged monkeyshines; in a live version I have from January 2007 he sings "Release him!" — which, in the context of the reading proposed above, is pretty interesting in itself.

Finally the excitement winds down, and the song ends with a resigned, piano-backed reprise of the opening figure, carried over from notes to chords now: the trash and the emotion both spent, the gamut run, the fun over, the morning after. The rest of the record (not that it's a concept album; leave that to Sufjan Stevens) suggests ways of coping with the subtle peaks and valleys of married life: here, though, there's nothing to do but run down to exhaustion and limp back home. To me, the last minute of this song is some of the most beautiful and affecting music Stephen Malkmus has recorded.

(Matador Records, if you're out there, and you'd like this MP3 to be taken down, I'm happy to oblige.)