“Tigers” is instant contact, the album’s best song, maybe the best song in Stephen Malkmus’ solo career and everything I ever liked about Stephen Malkmus in 2 minutes and change and this is a run-on sentence and I’m not too sussed because we’re reviewing Stephen Malkmus songs and I think that proper sentence structure is something that ought to be reserved for other artists – Radiohead or something. Indelible riff, Stephen Malkmus’ vocals following along in classic Stephen Malkmus manner, opening with a classic Stephen Malkmus-ism in “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks / A scary thought / In the 2K’s,” great falsetto in the chorus giving it a melody that’s just as memorable as the verses. That was a run-on sentence as well with three occurrences of “Stephen Malkmus” – take that, high school English teacher!
After that, the greatest draws from Mirror Traffic are “No One Is (As I Are)” – a Stephen Malkmus title if I ever saw one – and “Forever 28” (you know, despite the fact that Malkmus was over 40 at the time). The former has a great couplet, “I cannot even do one sit up / Sit ups are so bourgeoisie,” just so perfectly sad and happy at the same time (a fine descriptor of the best Pavement songs) and the way he pauses before “bourgeoisie” is a great detail – as if thinking of an excuse at the moment. Later on that same song, Beck adds the subtlest of Sea Change glockenspiels and horns after keyboards come in to harmonize with the song’s (great) riff in the prettiest stretch on the album (and while I’m happy for that detail, I’m more happy that otherwise, Beck leaves Stephen Malkmus to his devices, as opposed to turning Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts into Sea Change’s sequel earlier that year). Meanwhile, “Forever 28” has an infectious bounce that recalls the energy of “Mirrors” despite having the album’s most vicious lyrics (“No one is / your perfect fit / I do not believe / in that shit”) and a great coda to boot.
Beyond those songs, there’s some good moments worth investigating: I quite like the “Fuck it!” in the dead center of “Senator” because it recalls the jubilant “Walk! With your credit card in the air! / Swing your nachos like you just don’t care!” bit from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’s “Unfair” (although nowhere near as affecting) and the piano line that comes in at the 2:24 mark of “All Over Gently” that turns the indoors song into a psychedelic jaunt outside (what’s with all these good codas?). Then, there’s the riff that drives “Stick Figures in Love”, the backing vocals that focus your attention on certain phrases “Shared the Red” that also has the side-effect of ironically focusing your attention on the phrases without them and the descending guitar figures at the 4:00 mark of “Brian Gallop.” And … I s’pose “Spazz” should be commended for sounding like what the title suggests.
Pitchfork’s Rob Mitchum wisely writes that “Malkmus is the indie-rock version of a Dylan or Simon or U2, artists who will forever be blurbed as making ‘their best album since ____,’“ except, in Stephen Malkmus’ case, that blank space is always filled out with a Pavement record instead a Stephen Malkmus one because a lot of people seem to think it’s necessary to namedrop Pavement records – now from over a decade ago – as comparison points. “You can never quarantine the past,” indeed. In this case, it’s often Wowee Zowee that gets brought up because this one has the most tracks on any Stephen Malkmus-related album since and because it sounds like there was little thought given to the ordering of tracks beyond hitting shuffle but the comparisons end there –Wowee Zowee sounded like Pavement pretending to be as many contemporaries as possible while retaining the fundamentals that made them Pavement; Mirror Traffic sounds like Stephen Malkmus doing Stephen Malkmus. Frankly, I’m not interested in what Stephen Malkmus record most closely resembles whatPavement record – in this case, you’re doing Wowee Zowee a disservice and setting this one up for inevitable failure.
But, if we must talk about Pavement, whereas my biggest problem with Real Emotional Trash was its relative lack of lyrics due to the focus on jams after Janet Weiss’ induction, my biggest problem with Mirror Traffic is its lyrics, especially noticeable because the jams here are much more succinct to completely non-existent. People keep talking about how influential Pavement was (acclaimedmusic.net places Slanted and Enchanted as Pavement’s highest charting album when there are at least two – probably even three – albums that are better, just less “historically important” as if that fucking means anything at all), but for me, Pavement’s magic was in Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics and how he delivered them. You know, stuff like “This is the city life / Let’s talk about leaving,” or “You’re the kind of girl I like / Because you’re empty and I’m empty,” or all of “Range Life” and “Shady Lane” and a whole bunch of others. Though Stephen Malkmus sings “I mean every word / The and’s, the if’s, the but’s, and the the’s” on “Tigers,” most of the lyrics on Mirror Traffic don’t mean much at all, and if they ever might, he doesn’t particularly sing them in any special way to make them signify anything (barring the ones I’ve already praised). I’m frankly embarrassed by how commonplace the oft-talked about “political” observation on “Senator” is (“I know what the senator wants / What the senator wants is a blow job / I know what everyone wants / What everyone wants is a blow job”) and on a song with so much potential from the title, “Stick Figures in Love,” the most he can manage is “God speaks through that albino, Hitler” – yeesh.
“You’ve got no idea what sets you apart.”
“(And still you’re winning).”