Much like the Pixies' Trompe Le Monde, Pavement's swan song, Terror Twilight, sounded a lot like a disguised solo album from the group's chief singer/songwriter, Stephen Malkmus. The album's polished production and earnest, ambitious songwriting -- not to mention lack of Scott Kannberg songs -- sounded miles away from the playful, slightly chaotic rock that made albums like Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain so exciting. Yet Malkmus' actual solo debut, aptly named Stephen Malkmus, reclaims some of the energetic creativity of Pavement's best albums. In fact, it sounds like the most fun he's had in a studio since Wowee Zowee. This may be because he didn't have to deal with the confines and expectations of a new Pavement album; Malkmus didn't originally plan to release the album through Matador, which possibly removed some of the pressure to make a "statement" with this collection. Which is good, because instantly catchy, zany songs like "Troubbble" might not have made it to the album. Stephen Malkmus begins with a rush of these vibrantly playful songs, including "Phantasies," a fey mix of falsetto vocals, pennywhistles, handclaps, marimbas, and other bizarre musical non sequiturs, and "JoJo's Jacket," a whimsical, stream-of-consciousness ode to Yul Brenner: "Perhaps you saw me in Westworld/I acted like a robotic cowboy/It was my best role/I cannot deny/I felt right home deep inside/that electronic carcass." Like most of the album, these songs take a few aspects of what made Pavement great and magnify them. The beautiful, chiming "Church on White" is one of Malkmus' best sweeping, emotional guitar epics since "Grounded" or "Fin"; "Vague Space" and "Deado"'s sweet, quirky romanticism balances earnestness and irony in the way Pavement tried to on Terror Twilight, but avoids that album's oddly distant sound. And while the surprisingly straightforward rocker "Discretion Grove" and "Trojan Curfew" -- a pretty, countrified ballad about the Trojan War that rhymes "doric arch" with "pyhrric march" -- could have fit on Pavement's later works, Stephen Malkmus does feature some twists and turns that differentiate the album from Malkmus' old band. The groovy keyboards laced through songs like "Pink India" and "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog," a funny, poignant ballad about a neo-hippie couple going their separate ways, give the album different textures than those Pavement explored. Likewise, the Stonesy tale about being a pirate, "The Hook" -- which sounds like the ship's crew is listening to a bar band while taking a rum break -- just doesn't seem like the type of song Pavement would have recorded at the end of their career. Actually, the song that sounds the most like late-'90s Pavement, the chugging album opener "Black Book," is the most out of place with the rest of Stephen Malkmus' fun, lighthearted tone. Though placing most of the zippy, instantly catchy songs near the top of the album works against it somewhat, as a whole it's refreshingly free of the typical solo debut's gravity and earnestness. By keeping things light, Stephen Malkmus -- the album and, very likely, the person -- defies heavy analysis from critics and fans. No, it's not quite the same as another Pavement album, but its literate, funny eclecticism is almost as irresistible.
Share this page
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares