Stephen Malkmus turning all Incredible String Band on us was not on the cards, especially after Groove Denied, last year’s hit-and-miss dalliance with electronica. But Traditional Techniques – guess the clue was in the name really – is full of hippy-dippy mysticism, Indian instrumentation and pastoral chill. An unexpected turn of events then, but not unwelcome. This gentler, less fractious style suits him.
The dreamy stroll of ACC Kirtan sets the tone from the get-go, but the new style is most boldly stated in Shadowbanned, an all-hands-on-deck, mystical, multi-instrumental jam that sounds like Pentangle tackling Dylan’s Rainy Day Women. “High churn rate… praying for a multiverse… parody of TED talks… cracked emoji”. Typically Malkmusian phrases make odd sense as they leap from the stream of consciousness.
Electric guitar wig-outs have largely been swapped for acoustic guitar doodling, indie insouciance for ancient folk wisdom. Even Xian Man, the lead single, and least of a departure, keeps its guitar heroics bubbling under and earthy sounding – more Tinariwen than Tin Machine.
Everywhere on the album restraint has been exercised. It’s easy to imagine What Kind Of Person worked up as one of his regular mid-paced indie rockers, for instance, but instead he’s slow cooked it and flavoured it with some soulful, floaty flute. Signal Western too puts forward a C&W melody that would’ve been drowned by indie guitar, but instead comes out pretty as a picture – “You got potential / I heard you sing like an angel”
Two superficially lightweight country ballads, The Greatest Own In Legal History and Cash Up, grow lovelier for the listening. The former dresses up a profession of love in legal metaphor: “I would like to represent you / be a verbal musician… I’ll be there to vent the jury / make sure there’s a couple of softies on our side.. Our jailhouse discussions will be fraught with innuendo”. The latter hints at something more unrequited: “Does anybody like me? No pressure / I’m just asking for a friend”
Traditional Techniques is actually a fine example of a midlife musical makeover – it feels organic, not forced, and retains the casual cool, veiled virtuosity and lyrical quirk that make Malkmus Malkmus. The perennial indie kid has simply matured and discovered a fascinating new direction. Well played.