Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Mirror Traffic and the Satisfying Stasis of Stephen Malkmus

Douglas Martin won’t sell you his Malkmus troll doll. If you have even a passing knowledge of indie-rock, the name Stephen Malkmus hardly needs an introduction. Some credit the Pavement...
By    August 24, 2011

Douglas Martin won’t sell you his Malkmus troll doll.

If you have even a passing knowledge of indie-rock, the name Stephen Malkmus hardly needs an introduction. Some credit the Pavement frontman as the reason why the indie-rock sounds the way it does today. Some feel he’s single-handedly responsible for creating the entire genre. There are people who think he’s wildly overrated, and there are others who– regardless of the fact that there are people out there who assert that he invented indie-rock— feel as though Malkmus still hasn’t received his proper due. In the alternative world — that tiny sliver on the outer margins of culture — Malkmus is Dylan. Malkmus is Lennon / McCartney. Malkmus is a living legend, a deity, and– even at age 45– a heartthrob.

And here we are, 22 years after the formation of Pavement (which, in terms of career arcs, is the same amount of time it took McCartney to go from Hamburg to Tug of War), a band that changed a handful of lives beyond the point of repair, and a new batch of tunes written by Malkmus have been released. This is after a ten-year run with his game-changing band, a solo career that has lasted just as long, and an incredibly successful (both lucratively and in terms of cultural relevance) reunion tour last year that drew the ire of Billy Corgan– whose Smashing Pumpkins were famously dissed in Pavement’s “Range Life” and whose sense of humor could be reasonably compared to that of Wayne Jarvis.

To make things even more like a I Love the 90’s vignette waiting to happen, the boards were handled by Beck Hansen, Mr. “I’m a Loser Baby, So Why Don’t You Kill Me” himself. Reports as to whether the album was recorded on two turntables and a microphone are unconfirmed at press time.

Is the album any good? Sure it is. Lead single “Senator” finds Malkmus in rare lyrical form, tossing arch micro-narratives around the central theme of Congress mischief and a chorus that goes, “I know what the senator wants / What the senator wants is a blowjob.”

The first-half of “Long Hard Book” has a wistful air reminiscent of Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight. There are tricky time signatures, phrasing that sometimes turns on a dime, and enough cryptic, stream-of-consciousness lyrics to have Malkmus Stans pouring over them for months to search for some type of meaning. Throughout, Malkmus proves that he is still a singular guitarist, making any song he strangles his six-string on quite obviously his work and his alone.

His guitar work is a facet of his songwriting has been frequently overlooked until pretty recently, with a new generation of musicians– ones still in teddy bear onesies when Slanted and Enchanted dropped– often imitating, but never duplicating (here’s looking at you, Cymbals Eat Guitars). Even if you lined all your Yucks in a row, you’d be hard pressed to find leads as effortlessly melodic as the one-two punch of “Asking Price” and “Stick Figures in Love”. So, yeah. Mirror Traffic is a good album. But the fact that it’s merely a “good” album got me thinking: what’s that even mean at this point in Malkmus’ career, when he raked in Pixies money from all of the aging slackers who were dying to see him play “Cut Your Hair” one more time?

It’s true that not many bands who have double-digit careers can push the reset button and reinvent themselves every few years– something that our generation has officially classified as “pulling a Radiohead.” It’s not a stretch by any means to say that Malkmus’ solo albums are simply variations of a theme he pretty much perfected on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Wowee Zowee and Brighten the Corners. And finally, Malkmus is not a lyricist on the caliber as fellow 90’s indie stalwarts Bill Callahan and John Darnielle.

His friend David Berman (Silver Jews mastermind and quite possibly my all-time favorite lyricist of any genre), in his own words, said that he stopped writing songs in fear of the well running dry, causing him to eventually start churning “Shiny Happy People”-like dreck if he didn’t gracefully bow out. Does Malkmus every worry about running out of new things to sing about, or is his creative spirit restless enough to keep his pen full of ink? Does he ever worry about hanging it all up, or is he satisfied with moving along in the middle margins, never veering too far off from the course he’s been on for all of these years?

We all like to see our favorite artists evolve, consistently driving the genres and sub-genres they pioneered into new directions. We as vampiric music fans get excited when we hear something that’s a little unlike anything we’ve heard before. Malkmus has even said it (albeit a little sarcastically) himself: “Music scene is crazy / Bands start up each and every day / I saw another one just the other day / A special new band!” With each passing day, with so many new sounds to keep up, you have to wonder why so many veteran artists keep soldiering forth, especially ones who settle into a specific creative comfort zone. And while this is his best solo record in years and possibly even overall, Malkmus has written the songs on Mirror Traffic before, and better. You have to wonder, with a man who has more than one all-time classic under his belt, what the point is in making a record that’s merely an above average dip into familiar waters.

MP3: Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks-“Senator”

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