Stephen Malkmus

Face the Truth

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Considering the seemingly plainspoken title of his third solo album, plus the extracurricular knowledge that the former Pavement leader has settled down and is a first-time father, it would be easy to assume that Face the Truth is where Stephen Malkmus finally turns into a self-conscious adult, ironing out the kinks in his music, tempering his humor, and starts making classic rock records for Mojo readers. Frankly, such a leap backward toward respectability doesn't seem all that far-fetched in light of the meandering, monochromatic Pig Lib, which suggested that Malkmus was standing on the verge of becoming a modern-day Tony McPhee, churning out guitar jams to an ever more selective audience. Knee-jerk assumptions shouldn't always be trusted, however, since Face the Truth isn't plain or predictable at all: it's a vibrant return to form. Malkmus is making records as he did in the heyday of Pavement, treating the Jicks as a backing band that can contribute a little in the studio but is designed for the stage. He lays down most of the instrumental tracks himself, overdubs acoustic guitars, banjos, and sitars, dabbles in synths, and plays around with the mixes so they bend, twist, slur, and suddenly explode. Only on the misleading first single, "Post-Paint Boy" -- a sly swipe at modern art -- does he sound as conventional as he did on Pig Lib, but it's sharper than most of that record, and it acts as a good anchor to this gleefully excessive album. Malkmus is driven by the same mischievous spirit that fueled his first solo album, but where that record had a proudly impish, even silly, bent, Face the Truth has an air of mystery. It's not so much that Malkmus is inscrutable -- a criticism often lazily leveled against him -- but that he's made the album with the sole desire of amusing himself, indulging his whims in a way reminiscent of the wild detours of Wowee Zowee. But Face the Truth isn't just tighter than that album -- its 40 minutes zoom by -- it's concentrated, with each track packed until it's ready to burst. Yet for as indulgent as the oversaturated mixes are, they're never overstuffed: each instrument, each overdub, each blip and squawk is there for a reason, and no song, not even the epic eight-minute sprawl of "No More Shoes," lasts longer than necessary. One of Malkmus' greatest gifts as a record-maker has been his arrangements, which are initially bewilderingly dense, but they slowly unveil to revealing their intricacies so that on repeated plays it's easy to marvel at how the music crests and peaks. Those loose yet exacting arrangements were missing on the straight and narrow Pig Lib, but he's returned to that strength here while marrying it to a greater sense of sonic adventure, and it makes Face the Truth quite thrilling and rewarding.

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