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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Sparkle Hard Music Album Reviews

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - Sparkle Hard Music Album Reviews
On his fetching seventh solo album, the witty and digressive songwriting of Stephen Malkmus becomes newly and delightfully grounded in the present day.

Though Pavement’s sound and soul have been inextricably linked to the ’90s, Stephen Malkmus’ solo career feels unmoored to any era. Removed from the zeitgeist and any real commercial expectations, Malkmus has settled into a comfortable routine of indulging whims, exploring rabbit holes, and generally making music just far enough removed from Pavement’s buzzy aloofness that nobody could accuse him of chasing past glories. Give or take a Real Emotional Trash, the approach has flattered him.

So perhaps the most surprising thing about his fetching seventh album, Sparkle Hard, is how of-the-moment it feels. It engages with the present in a way none of his Jicks albums have, time-stamping its songs with lyrics about Facebook and nods to the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements (“Men are scum, I won’t deny,” he sings). On several songs, he even toys around with vocal manipulation and Auto-Tune. He doesn’t go full Frank Ocean or Bon Iver or anything, but it’s a tantalizing taste of the kind of music Malkmus might be making if he were a quarter-century younger.

Malkmus possesses a delightful sense of ease and unpredictability here. “Solid Silk” is caressed by warm strings right out of a ’70s Philly soul record. On the country lark “Refute,” Kim Gordon swings by for a verse that slyly reimagines the circumstances of her very public divorce; her poker face and his smirk play off of each other so flatteringly that it’s amazing she and Malkmus have never worked together before. In general, Malkmus’ words are flowing off his tongue even more seamlessly than usual. “You know you should be blushin’ to a hue of Robitussin,” he hums on “Middle America,” a gorgeous doodle of a song.

The album doesn’t skimp on rippers, either. Malkmus has cut back on the guitar theatrics over his last few records, but when he deploys them, he makes them come alive. Slathered in unruly fuzz, “Shiggy” rides a beaming riff that grows more jubilant by the minute. And then there’s “Bike Lane,” which juxtaposes news of a bike lane with the violent death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police. “They got behind him with their truncheons and choked the life right out of him,” Malkmus sings, accompanied by a chugging krautrock rhythm. It may be the most confrontational song he’s ever written.

The Wowee Zowee standout “Grounded,” with its protest that “boys are dying on these streets,” was also a plea for caring, but it directed its jabs at the detached upper class, with their luxury sedans and crystal ice picks. Here Malkmus is poking at his own bubble, the socially aware middle class that presumably makes up much of his audience these days—the ones that back Black Lives Matter on paper, but tend to get a lot more worked up about issues that affect their daily commute. “Bike Lane” is the rare Malkmus song that demands you to wrestle with it. Is it even in good taste? Malkmus is low on the list of artists anybody wanted to hear tell Freddie Gray’s story, and his voice is far too glib for the subject matter. But at least he’s saying his name, and that’s more than most indie-rock records do.

Sparkle Hard is not ostensibly different than his last couple albums, but its arrival feels better timed—there’s been a hole in the market for indie-rock albums this impervious, compact, and good-natured. Where Malkmus’ solo work has sometimes walked the fine line between too detached or too self-satisfied, the record cartwheels over it with the assurance of an artist who’s correctly assumed that so long as he’s enjoying himself enough, others will too.

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