Two years ago, Stephen Malkmus was preparing to release his first album since the dissolution of Pavement, the seminal '90s indie-rock outfit he fronted. He gave his label, Matador Records, something of a fright when he told them he wanted to release the album under the moniker of his new band, the Jicks. The label balked, fully aware that such a move would dampen the album's commercial prospects, and put its foot down. Consequently, Stephen Malkmus was packaged, presented and promoted as a solo album, right down to the unprecedented move of putting the singer's face front and center on the record's cover.
While that might have struck some as a typical corporate ploy, it turns out that Matador was absolutely right. Stephen Malkmus was a solo album. Close listening reveals it to be a document of transition, from its sunny pop grooves and straightforward progressions to its thematic undercurrents: breaking with the past, acknowledging the need for change. "Trojan Curfew" opens with the Greek gods languishing in boredom; "Jo Jo's Jacket" begins with Yul Brenner ruminating on the liberating effects of shaving his head, before Malkmus, inhabiting the actor, states, "I'm not what you think I am" (it's hard not to think of Malkmus' antipathy toward his old outfit when he sings, "Perhaps you saw me in Westworld/I acted like a robotic cowboy"); both the smirky relationship saga "Jenny and the Ess-Dog" and the elegiac "Church on White" (written for the late novelist Robert Bingham) ring with the echoes of loss and the certainty of moving forward.
Of course, reading too much into Malkmus' famously elliptical lyrics is foolhardy at best; this is the same songwriter, after all, who managed to provoke endless debate simply by ambiguously singing either "career" or "Korea" on "Cut Your Hair" (from Pavement's landmark Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). But there's little denying the disc's clean break with what came before, or that the crowning irony of Stephen Malkmus was its relative lack of irony.
The remarkable thing, then, about the new Pig Lib -- credited to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks -- is how completely Malkmus, having rightfully established an identity for himself apart from one of the most influential bands of the '90s, subsumes himself back into a band dynamic. In many ways, Pig Lib is much more of a band album than any of Pavement's discs (especially its anti-climactic swan song, Terror Twilight, widely regarded as Malkmus' first solo album). Yes, it's still anchored by Malkmus' voice -- both his well-worn speak-singing tenor and his penchant for loopy non-sequiturs. But it's not the singer's famous cult of laconic personality that drives the record: it's the Jicks' confident, sinewy sound, woven from the hemp fibers of obscure prog-rock garage bands like the Groundhogs, given meat and flesh by warm, deep-bottomed guitar grooves that owe more to the dense, headphone-friendly tones of beard- rock than the bald dome of Yul Brenner.
Ironically (there's that word again), it's safe to say that in the somewhat more rigid confines of tone-drenched '70s album rock, Malkmus sounds freer, less confined than before. "(Do Not Feed the) Oyster" sports an effortlessly catchy sing-along melody, buoyed by a slightly folky mid-tempo bop and punctuated with spikes of slightly dissonant guitar straight out of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians' Fegmania! It breaks the song out of its shady Jethro Tull glade into an unabashedly muscular instrumental workout, before sliding back into the next verse without breaking a sweat. Similarly, the subdued kiss-off of "Animal Midnight" uncoils leisurely into an extended jam of thick, edgy guitar slabs (courtesy of Malkmus, who proves himself a proficient noodler), as do the pointed "Witch Mountain Bridge" and the lumbering nine-minute epic "1% of One," with a brief metafictional wink at a band that sounds "a bit like the Zephyr/And a bit like the Jicks."
That reference isn't just snarky self- congratulation, however: Between its brawnier explorations and the shorter, prettier and less affected story-songs ("Vanessa From Queens," "Ramp of Death") that prop them up, Pig Lib emerges as a cohesive collective work, the sum of its individual players' skills as much as their influences or their leader's familiar (and for once, not overpowering) presence. By sublimating the id that has too often run rampant -- in Pavement's arch cleverness and the accidental catharsis of Stephen Malkmus -- in favor of a more collaborative ego, Malkmus frees himself from the burdens of his role as a Gen-X icon. And by letting his hair down to indulge in a hirsute, self-assured rock record, the Malkmus who once raised cryptic cleverness to a near art form with "Cut Your Hair" has found a new, Samsonesque vitality.
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