This is the seventh Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks record, as has been noted by many reviewers. “Wow, that’s more than Pavement”, they say. But ‘Sparkle Hard’ differs as it sees Malkmus renounce (slightly) that smirking posture of indifference which we’ve grown to love him for on an album that immediately seems more effervescent and engaged than previous efforts.
It’s at once more political – not in a tub-thumping way, of course – with Malkmus addressing the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police in Baltimore on ‘Bike Lane’, and there’s the oft-quoted line “Men are scum, I won’t deny” on single ‘Middle America’, a statement that rings alarmingly true in view of #MeToo.
‘Middle America’ examines the present, but elsewhere he engages with what Thomas Pynchon referred to as ‘the legacy America’. The musical one is alive and well as he resumes the language games he has spent much of his career instigating: it’s evident in titles like ‘Shiggy’ and ‘Let Them Eat Vowels’ but also in lines like ‘Cynical pinnacles, we swung too high/Flaccid as a wedding cake, but tight makes right/ With a kiss goodnight’ on downbeat ‘Solid Silk’. They are reliably playful and ‘cryptic’.
The Jicks are on form, and Kim Gordon’s cameo on ‘Refute’ is great. ‘Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels’ is like Pavement classics ‘Fillmore Jive’ and ‘Infinite Spark’ in its length, deliciously melancholic chord cycles and movement towards wigged-outness, or his own peculiar brand of it.
Of course, Pavement toured with Sonic Youth, but this is far from a blasé attempt to recover the numen of the 90s. Importantly, the ‘modern’ elements, the strings and Auto-Tune, rarely seem extraneous; they speak to a desire for sonic progression (let’s not forget the gulf between Pavement’s debut ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ and 1999’s ‘Terror Twilight’) and to a musician who’s carved out his own niche but doesn’t want to rest on his laurels.
As with most of his oeuvre, there is a celebration and slight repudiation of rock tropes. ‘Bike Lane’ doesn’t quite strike the balance, and as such isn’t a highlight, nor is ‘Shiggy’. But they’re done so wryly, so knowingly, that it’s not a big deal and they don’t detract much from what is an assuredly sparkly album.
Words: Wilf Skinner
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