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Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks Both Mock and Slyly Embody Middle Age on ‘Wig Out at Jagbags’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: January 07, 2014
Label: Matador

You can maybe stay cool into your forties, but don’t bet on it. The hippest in-jokes wither into the limpest dad jokes, and the culprit’s nothing as banal as fluctuation in fashion or the inevitability of losing touch with current trends — it’s middle-age itself, the most superficial and least surprising of all life’s way stations, a slough devoid of all magic and mystery. A kid’s delusions of immortality give offhand utterances an air of discovery; a geezer’s croak hints at mortality and seems vaguely oracular. In between, you just try to have a little fun without embarrassing yourself too much.

At 47, Stephen Malkmus is gunning for the title of Least Embarrassing Rock Dude of His Generation. His personal life is a model of mature bohemian security: WASPy good looks intact, recently returned to Portland after a couple years in Berlin, married (with two children) to an established visual artist, with indie rock still providing a steady job — maybe even a (sing along, all you ’90s kids) car-ee-ah, car-ee-ah, car-ee-ah. Nor has his gift for getting away with shit waned. The title of his sixth album since Pavement’s breakup slammed the door on the ’90s, and Wig Out at Jagbags (that’s Go Mental at Wankers, for our U.K. readers) should make you wince, but instead comes off as mildly brilliant. The guy is, in short, pretty cool. For a 47-year-old.

Like its predecessors, Jagbags feels casual in a way that Malkmus’ old band, for all the slacker clichés lobbed lazily their way, were too young and too committed to finding their place in the world to risk. The chief pleasures are often seemingly minor details that nose their way into the foreground: the extended doo-doo’ing chorus of “Houston Hades,” the distorted bass on “Shibboleth,” a muted trumpet on “J Smoov.” (Also generally pleasurable: the song titles.)

Meanwhile, Malkmus’ guitar retains an innate ability to careen into tunefulness as though inadvertently; here, it draws upon the most classic of rock. On “Planetary Motion,” he threatens to learn the riff to Cream’s “I Feel Free” over a rhythmically precise herky-jerk that’d give Ginger Baker fits. “The Janitor Revealed” meanders into the odd Hendrix flourish or two, while “Chartjunk” is a ramshackle boogie that stumbles across perky ELO choruses. But retro-fueled as the playing may be, it’s not nostalgic, or even, as often was the case with Pavement, elegiac — it’s pragmatic, seeking to adapt and extend musical resources our host has lived with too long to be called mere influences.

Lyrics are a trickier matter, where the Pavement legacy looms largest. Malkmus once crafted a language by which an inherently diffident (or ironic) (or aloof) (or distant) (or, you know, whatever) tribe learned to miscommunicate with one another, dropping clues to the heart’s cryptic crossword puzzle and trusting that the likeminded would have enough time on their hands to bother deciphering them: “All the sterile striking it / Defends an empty dock you cast away” (from Slanted and Enchanted‘s “Here”). His vocal command remains intact, that wry surety of tone still justifying his vagaries of pitch, always sounding smarter than its most nonsensical turns (without condescending) and warmer than its snottiest bits (without sentimentalizing). But if you’re scratching your head over John Ashbery Mad-Libs like “Livin’ in this yurt / Everybody hurts / There’s no central heat,” well, two guesses who the joke’s on.

And yet, puzzling over hidden meanings is an all-but-unkickable habit, especially when Malkmus glances self-consciously backward. “Come and join us in this punk rock tomb,” he beckons at the start of “Rumble at the Rainbo,” an uncomfortably on-the-nose battle cry for rock’n’roll lifers, its punch line a half-assed postpunk skank breakdown. When he attempts to provide those lifers with a motto — “No one here has changed and no one ever will” — does he mock them, dismiss them, include himself in their number? Yeah, probably.

The less defensively historical “Lariat” is a turn-of-the-’90s reminiscence that catalogs post-collegiate experience through the music, books, and meals consumed together. Mudhoney, the Sun City Girls, and Bongwater all appear, not to mention “Tennyson / And venison / And the Grateful Dead.” Pa Malkmus even throws some good-natured shade at you kids (“We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever / Talkin’ ’bout the A-D-Ds”) and maybe even your fashion sense (“People look great when they shave”). You want an unhidden meaning? Try “You’re not what you aren’t / You aren’t what you’re not.” (Sometimes un pipe est un pipe, eh M. Magritte?) Or “You got what you want / You want what you got.” The contentment Malkmus expresses here is so cozy you might feel a little corny calling it wisdom. But you wouldn’t embarrass yourself too much if you called it perspective.