When Pavement first appeared on the music scene in 1989, they seemed like they would burst and flame forever. Listening to their first few EPs, and then the long-player Slanted and Enchanted, you might have been listening to the surface of the sun — molten caverns, bright lakes of lava, hissing gas, and solar flares. The band had smelted the very language of rock ‘n’ roll, to the point where each song sounded like creation itself, combustible energy, all quick shifts in tempo and tone, soaring solos, and fuzzy meltdowns. Indeed, despite the press’ obsessive attention to the band’s slacker style, Pavement’s music came across as intensely physical, promethean almost, unabashedly anthemic — sunny, in a West Coast sense of the word. Songs like “Summer Babe” and “Loretta’s Scars” soared through their own cynical haze, guitars climbing higher than their feedback, voices reaching beyond their own irony. It was this combination of cynicism and spirit that caught nearly everyone off-guard and, in an age of hair bands, girl groups, and commercial hip-hop, gave more than one pasty smart aleck a new way of being cool.
The band’s reputation was helped, no doubt, by their cultivated mystique. But when S.M. and Spiral Stairs finally emerged from behind the feedback and anagrams, they seemed as cool as you had imagined. Malkmus — with his lanky swagger and rumpled charm — came across like the older brother you never had. He was an unqualified guitar god with a wicked sense of dynamism, but he never lorded it. In turn, you wanted to follow his chord changes, but didn’t care when he left you in the dust. He presided over a scrappy band of brothers, and yet he made each one seem like a hero, turning their limitations into the stuff of legend. Again, left to my own, I would never have thought to describe Malkmus as a slacker. I just assumed all serious artists were supposed to act that way, and his looseness seemed part of the craft. I loved the relaxed flow of his voice, especially when it was doubled against a snarled guitar line, just as much as I loved the messy surfaces of his record covers. Like Presley before him, a certain tossed-off cool shined on everything he did, making a marvel of mistakes. His laziness was a liberation, just as his irony was a form of keen intelligence.
But Pavement the rock band is now dust, a burnt-out supernova. Some think they lost their edge early on, with the exit of prickly punk drummer Gary Young and the turn to classic rock forms on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. For me, though, the serious warning signs began to appear on Brighten The Corners, when the band’s innate goofiness began to trump its muscular intensity (“Stereo”), and Malkmus, as a songwriter, started to abandon his dynamic guitar-driven compositions for a less substantial, but no less charming, lyrical balladry. Malkmus, now in his mid-forties, still makes cool music. His last outing, Real Emotional Trash, with its proggy time signatures and sinewy leads, showed him at the top of his game. The 10-minute title track is a marvel of sonic storytelling, a throbbing guitar jam with some of the best lyrics of his career: “Down in Sausalito we had clams for desert/ You spilled some Chardonnay on your gypsy skirt.” Still, his post-Pavement career shows signs of fatigue; the noodling seems a bit aimless at times, and weary ballads tend to outweigh the more inspired experiments in sonic attitude. But, really, happy accidents defined Pavement’s sound from the start, and you’d be a fool to think Malkmus and co. could ever recreate the conditions of their early success. In fact, the very casualness that allowed Malkmus to turn lo-fi talent into musical gold also ultimately showed him the way to bow out of the band gracefully. “Roll with the wind” might have been Pavement’s best working mantra, but “no more absolutes” was its final and greatest lesson.
All of which makes Mirror Traffic, Malkmus’s fifth post-Pavement outing, both a surprising success and a fully expected one. The album is all about flagging energy, as well as the possibility of sustaining it with age, and Malkmus treats the theme with characteristic grace and intelligence. “There’s not much left inside my tank today,” Malkmus sings on “Brain Gallop,” “There’s just enough to come and whisk you away.” The song starts off with a lazy, loafing riff, the verses punctuated by anxious, staccato hooks, but it ultimately manages to lift itself off the couch with a soaring double-neck guitar solo. It’s a marvelous moment, on an album full of many such moments, all put in the service of exploring the contingencies of age and the ambivalence of settling down. Most of the commentary addresses the intimacy of family life, as in “No One Is (As I Are Be),” a gorgeous ode to marital complacency with a Bobbie Gentry bounce, or “Share the Red,” an introspective ballad about the anxiety of parenthood. But there’s plenty of room here for retrospection and growth. On “Forever 28,” Malkmus plays youthful cynicism for mature laughs, using a bright music-hall bounce to outline the dead-end logic of the preternaturally jaded: “I can see the mystery of you and me will never quite add up/ No one is your perfect fit/ I do not believe in that shit/ Don’t you know that every bubble bursts… Kill me.”
Musically, the album is all fits and starts, unexpected bursts of libido and quiet meltdowns. As ever, Malkmus plays loud against soft, fast against slow, but the moral struggle has changed, the sound resembling the agon of an uneasily aging man rather than a young rock turk (there’s a reason he cites Philip Roth in “Long Hard Book”). A few numbers here capture the Pavement bustle of yore, but some to better effect than others. “Tigers” sticks too closely to the goofball pop laid down on late era-Pavement singles like “Stereo” and “Carrot Rope.” “Senator,” on the other hand, comes across like weapons grade dynamite. Backed by powerful bursts of guitar and drum, Malkmus warns of chemical warfare and corporate takeovers. Again, the song confronts the problems of flagging energy, both personal and national. The senator wants a blow job, Malkmus shouts, just like everyone else in America, but only because we’re all “fading fast.” It’s not the political commentary that gets me here, though, but the muscular dynamism of the song. The cocky angst of the first couple of verses soon gives way to a dreamy interlude about smoking weed. “Heavy heavy heavy heavy heavy heavy heavy smelter,” Malkmus chants with rising intensity, before shouting, “Fuck it,” and launching his guitar into the original chunky hook. It’s giddy and brilliant, and as worthy as anything else on Wowee Zowee, perhaps Pavement’s greatest statement on the gloriously idiotic heaviness of rock ‘n’ roll.
In fact, fans will be happy to hear that Mirror Traffic shares Wowee Zowee’s general commitment to sonic messiness. Stylistically, the album’s all over the place, with a genial disregard for editing or sequencing. But even though Mirror Traffic is 15 tracks long, it doesn’t quite capture the earlier album’s shaggy grandeur. For one, it’s a bit too heavy on the ballads. “I can try to be a big psych-rock shredder,” Malkmus recently explained to Spin Magazine, “But I decided to make it more about melody. That could be what I’m better at.” No doubt, each of these slower songs has something going for it, a hook or a bridge or a chord progression that grabs your ear, but there’s just too damn many of them — “Asking Price,” “Long Hard Book,” “Share The Red,” etc. — and so they tend to blur into an MOR haze. At the same time, Mirror Traffic offers a few spiky punk numbers — “Spazz” and “Tune Grief,” in which Malkmus does his best Johnny Rotten impersonation — but these are few and far between. Without a ton of exquisite sonic junk surrounding them, as on Wowee Zowee, they come across more like kitschy exercises than the giddy tossed-off fragments of some more epic whole. That said, I’m just happy to know the album survived the depressive influence of producer Beck Hansen, whose once-amusing disaffection has solidified over the last decade into a mind-numbing bore. Honestly, the pairing scared me from the start, as I imagined that either these two rock kings would play together like a premature revival act or Beck would just suck the life out of Malkmus entirely. But it’s clear that the former’s touch was light, occupied mostly with instrumentation and mastering (although I’m wondering who was responsible for all those dreary slide guitars and multi-tracked vocals), leaving Malkmus enough space to explore his own, more compelling quirkiness as a songwriter and a performer.
Ultimately, Mirror Traffic doesn’t quite recapture the shaggy grandeur of Wowee Zowee, and, perhaps to its detriment, it abandons the proggy jam-band bliss of Real Emotional Trash. Rather, it takes aim at a low-impact mid-life ennui and, for that, appropriately utilizes Malkmus’s best ballad instincts (think “Major Leagues”). Indeed, unlike the grown-up experiences it seems to be chronicling, Mirror Traffic is no letdown, just a quieter, more refined addition to the Malkmus catalogue. It’s a subtle album about an unexpected range life, full of slow talk and afterglows, the work of a confident and comforting craftsman. If this is what it means to grow old with Stephen Malkmus, faults and all, then bring it on.