A new Stephen Malkmus album is always a welcome thing. The skewiff melodies and rhythmic slackness that gave Pavement their edge back in the 90s now greet you like old friends, fuzzy-feeling and familiar, a reminder of simpler musical times even. Sparkle Hard isn’t an album you’d use to wow the uninitiated, but regulars will be happy to tuck in to its homely musical stew.
Were you to try and convert a Malkmus agnostic with this album, recent single Middle America would be an obvious starting point, its unshowy college rockisms easy to get your lugholes round. Better still would be Solid Silk, a song much in the same vein, but deeper and more intricate. Incorporating swooning 70s MOR keyboards and riffage alongside English pop strings, it makes for a lovely four minutes.
Largely the album sticks to familiar templates. Opener Cast Off begins brittly before stumbling into crashing waves of guitar, one of Malkmus’ stylistic failsafes, Future Suite‘s coquettish little guitar chops are typical of his perkier side, while Shiggy is big and boisterous. Refute‘s country frills are a new departure though, with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth playing the indie June Carter to his Johnny Cash.
Not every returning motif works as well. The mid-song chop ‘n’ change which is often so successful is hit and miss here. Kite‘s pastoral acoustic opening hovers delicately somewhere between Led Zep and XTC, slumps into a messy wah-wah jam, before bursting beautifully at the four minute mark into a firework display of guitars. You want to top and tail it, and turn it into different songs.
Bike Lane is something akin to a protest song about the death of young African-American Freddie Gray at the hands of police, but such is Malkmus’s trademark obliqueness and the Chas ‘n’ Davey knees-up he uses on the verses, the power of its message is lost. It ends up feeling like a slighter companion piece to Hopscotch Willy, another law and order tale, from 2008 album Real Emotional Trash, but one that doesn’t demand the same gravity this seems to.
Also on the debit side – no grown man should be allowed near Auto-Tune, unless they’re Daft Punk. Here it crops up most egregiously on Rattler but also on Brethren. Leave it to the pop kids, Stephen, it sounds terrible, a stab at being of the moment, if the moment were ten years ago.
That mis-step is the only real (and weird) surprise on an album that otherwise delivers much what you’d expect. A few of these, particularly Solid Silk and Kite, could slip well into the live set, where the band could really get under the skin of them, make the most of their instrumental sections. The modus operandi hasn’t changed much, but Malkmus’ style remains remarkably evergreen.