Pavement’s rise and fall is a an all too familiar story at this point. Right as the band finally seemed like they were going to make their break for the mainstream the fame became too much to handle and they dissolved. Things got so bad for the group late in their run that, as is plainly stated on the Pavement Wikipedia page, there were times on their final tour where Malkmus would put his coat over his head, refuse to speak to anyone, and call himself “The Little Bitch”.
While Malkmus seemed mentally defeated and physically exhausted in 2000 he did not let it affect his productivity. After his divorce from the band was finalized he wasted no time at all, immediately getting back in the studio to record with his new group (which would soon become “The Jicks”). The results of those sessions culminated in his eponymous solo release Stephen Malkmus, an album that stands up with Pavement’s best. It showed that Malkmus still had a lot in the tank while allowing him to have fun making music again.
Stephen Malkmus is not too far a departure from the sound Pavement cultivated during the 90’s. Album opener Black Book sounds like a more expensively produced version of something that may have come out of the Slanted & Enchanted sessions. Many songs here continued with the Pavement tradition of seeming like they were going somewhere only for the listener to realize three quarters of the way through that the song is ultimately about not really anything. For this look no further than JoJo’s Jacket, a song which seems to start off as a tune about what it’s like to be Yul Brynner. Before you know it he’s singing about medicinal jelly and not leaving your house on Christmas and it becomes hard to tell exactly what role Brynner has in this whole affair.
However, this release is markedly different tonally from anything Malkmus made with Pavement. It was evident that it was not all too enjoyable being in that band in the late 1990’s. More than anything this album feels like the work of someone who is finally having fun again. Song shimmer and shine as Malkmus bubbles right through. The second song Phantasies bounces about just so wonderfully, children assist with the chorus while goofy vocal samples and the harpsicord fill the background. The song would quicker be confused with a Nick Jr theme song than it would a Pavement B-Side.
Malkmus also seems to be making a conscious effort to write fully fleshed out songs on this album. Where Pavement spent most of their time jamming about carelessly hoping that whatever they recorded would slowly turn into something worth putting on a record, here we have some real attempts at structure. Furthermore, Malkmus goes as far as to show off his storytelling chops here and there, keeping a consistent cast of characters and a coherent through line for full songs. One such song is the penultimate, Jenny and The Ess-Dog, which follows two star crossed lovers. Jennifer is our eighteen-year-old high school senior and Sean (the Ess-Dog if you wish) is our thirty-one-year-old guitarist in a sixties cover band. Our couple ultimately grow apart after Jenny goes off to college and they can no longer make up for the strain that the both physical distance and distance in age between the two. A definite album highlight, Jenny is tender and respectful of the two in question and makes for a much more beautiful love song than can probably it should. These two were never meant to be together and they sound like even when they were together they probably weren’t that fun to be around, and I doubt Jenny looks back fondly on those “awful toe rings” that she wore. But that doesn’t mean that their time together was meaningless or that growth didn’t come from it. It’s about how relationships can be an escape from the doldrums of everyday life, even if that escape proves to be temporary. It’s beautiful because most love isn’t the fairytale love that so many songs go on about it. Most relationships are complicated and destined to fail, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile and that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own dignity and beauty. Its intimate and stunning in a way that no Pavement song ever really attempted to be.
What seemed to annoy everyone in the band about being in Pavement was the expectations. It was extremely stressful trying to please a group of disparate groups who all want your band to sound a certain way for a certain reason, with none of those reasons relating to the band’s well-being an iota. This album started off what has been close to a twenty-year solo career for Malkmus, and while it has not been nearly as revered as his work with Pavement it sure seems a whole lot less stressful. With this self-titled Malkmus showed that he was going to be around for a long time and that it was going to be on his terms.