Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Real Emotional Trash

A review of the new Stephen Malkmus album

Published: March 21, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

diverse-city-3-21-08-final_page_2_image_0001.jpgTwo summers ago I was fortunate enough to see Stephen Malkmus and Sonic Youth perform back-to-back sets at the Bonnaroo Music Festival. When Thurston Moore invited Malkmus onstage for a rousing encore, what left an indelible impression on my mind was not the raw power of their twin guitar heroics, nor the combustion of live-wire energy that characterized the performance. Instead, what struck me most forcefully after seeing these two music legends side by side was the youthful aura they exuded well into middle age.

Juvenescence may seem like an ineffable quality, but if any 90s alternative band had the ability to bottle and sell the stuff, Pavement was it. While Nirvana undoubtedly held the patent on twenty-something existential angst, Pavement specialized in a more pervasive youthful emotion: restlessness. The constant redefinition of their sound and refusal to settle comfortably into a neat genre niche reflected this characteristic and gave them an edginess sorely lacking in many of their contemporaries. Coupled with a boundless spirit of joie de vivre, Pavement captured a state of mind that transcended its particular California zeitgeist.

That’s why Real Emotional Trash, Stephen Malkmus’s latest solo album featuring his faithful backing band, the Jicks, ultimately proves disappointing. In trading youthful vitality for musical maturity, the former Pavement front man sacrifices his greatest asset.

That’s not to say that there aren’t standout moments. For the first fifteen seconds of the album, the song “Dragonfly Pie” seems to launch Malkmus into new territory with a gothic, post-Sabbath, mixed meter riff. Nevertheless, when the lyrics come in, it’s pure Malkmusian mischief: “Of all of my stoned digressions/Some have morphed into the truth.” The chorus features a tricky melodic vocal line echoed on guitar that effectively conjures the image of the elegant insect from the song’s title.

The song that follows, “Hopscotch Willy,” borrows a funky vocal hook from Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids” and weaves it into a tale about a framed homicide. Nevertheless, it sounds about as much like a murder ballad as “Ring Around the Rosie” sounds like a celebration of the bubonic plague. Like most of the songs on the album, it’s a vehicle for Malkmus’s polymorphous fusion jams.

In a recent interview for Spin magazine, Malkmus admitted that he and the Jicks are in a performance-centric collective. “The records aren’t as bad as Grateful Dead records,” he conceded, “but we’ve become a more in-the-moment thing as we’re getting older.” Thus, when the songs sound hollow and anemic, it’s often because they lack that special alchemy that only comes from the vivacity and spontaneity of live shows.

This shift in priorities might seem forgivable if it weren’t unbearably clear that the new album is built around a set formula. Real Emotional Trash contains all the elements we’ve come to expect from his solo albums, including a ten-minute jam (“Real Emotional Trash”), a cathartic mid-tempo ballad (“Out of Reaches”), and an easygoing pop ditty (“Gardenia”).

Like Beck’s Guero, it sounds perfectly sculpted, with tight song structures and appropriate dynamic shifts in all the right places. Yet both albums remain stilted precisely because they lack all of the eccentricities that make both artists great.

When Pavement shrieked curses and dissed the Stone Temple Pilots in the middle of their songs for no apparent reason, they were never criticized for a lack of maturity. The fact that Malkmus feels the need to grow up is the single biggest mistake of his solo career.

“Can’t be what you want to be/ Got to be what you ought to be,” Malkmus croons on “Dragonfly Pie.” Coming from most rock singers’ lips, this would sound like a tirade against social conformity, but from Malkmus it sounds like a personal mantra.

Until he realizes that what he ought to be is what he wants to be, his albums will suffer from the self-consciousness that mars Real Emotional Trash. On the other hand, perhaps some of the fault lies with fans’ expectations. Instead of pressuring him into what he ought to be, maybe we should let him be what he wants to be, even if that’s more Jerry Garcia than Mark Smith.