After five triumphant solo albums, the idea of Stephen Malkmus and his Jicks recording something that doesn't immediately snap your head back into a choke hold and ruffle your hair seems nonsensical. It's only after the 42 minutes spent with Wig Out at Jagbags that you'll realise this might not be a bad thing at all.
Back in 2011, the Beck-assisted jam-fest Mirror Traffic did little other than literally wig out, resulting in a near-hour-long tour de force of dishevelled indie rock delight. With two decades notched in the business, it can be forgiven if the former Pavement mastermind may wish to calm his boots and let his music just be.
Wig Out at Jagbags opens with the off-key stomp of 'Planetary Motion', a odd little earworm built on a Sabbath-esque chug and some equally strange wordplay; “Planetary motion, circles round the sun/ unite in devotion/ to the chosen one”. As always, it'll be up to the listener to find the meaning in Malkmus' puzzling lyrical wizardry. It's a confident start that holds its own against some his best openers ('Stereo', 'Tigers', 'Summer Babe', 'Black Book'...) but may put off some first time listeners expecting something akin to Pavement's lo-fi roughage.
As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Malkmus and his gang have long matured from the days of counter-culture stardom. While Pavement were a vanguard against commercial sterility, here Malkmus chooses to embrace his status as a classic artist of a by-gone era. This is perfectly summarised on third track 'Lariat', an upbeat slice of poetic rock that comes complete with a meta-nostalgic jab at 99 per cent of the ageing music community. “We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever!” slings Malkmus before a celebratory nod to his own early love of Mudhoney and Sun City Girls. The bitter-sweet nostalgia continues: “We lived on Tennyson/ and venison/ and the Grateful Dead” he rhymes with his tongue firmly in cheek. Conceptually, it's up their with his best sketches, showing that age hasn't at all dampened that individual knack for ironic wit.
As ever, there's an open platform for Malkmus to noodle melodies from his own secret netherworld. But in what may prove dismaying for lo-fi anoraks, this is a dense, somewhat conservative affair that doesn't get snooty when the brass band and piano rolls in. Midway through the album comes 'J Smoov', a beautiful slow number akin to Yo La Tengo's most un-ostentatious moments. Referencing ELO in a moment of cheesy sentimentality, it's hard not to fall for its knowing charm: “In a race to the inside of your face/ you're afraid of me/ shuffling to Xanadu”.
Many will note that with Wig Out..., Malkmus has now put out more studio records as a solo artist than with Pavement, which is both an alarming and heart warming accomplishment. Ten years of fronting one of the greatest American bands of the Nineties hasn't left the man a complacent drudge but rather pushed him to do what Pavement never allowed.
Having always been celebrated for his subtle wit and labyrinthine approach to pop writing, he continues to weave genius from his own mental dictionary. “I've been tripping my face off since breakfast/ taking in this wind swept afternoon” he exclaims on 'Cinnamon and Lesbians' - while no doubt true some 15 years ago, in 2014 he's a more wholesome songwriter, one well aware while nobody gives a fuck if you make little sense, you should at least have fun sounding like you do.
8Ben Philpott's Score