Deep into Sparkle Hard, during the eighth track “Kite,” Stephen Malkmus seems to break the fourth wall with an admission of vulnerability. “Just right now,” Malkmus sings with his trademark sleepy vocals, “I’m not looking for a guy to turn my third place medal into gold.” For a guy known for writing dense, cryptic lyrics, this seems about as straight a declaration as you’re ever going to get from Malkmus before he indulges in pleasantly meandering guitar solos, a keyboard drone that wouldn’t be out of place in the intro to an early Stereolab song, and a chorus of falsetto “doo doo doo” backing vocals.
It’s a line sung by a guy who at this stage in the game, knows exactly who he is: a 51-year-old Portland dad who likes to play fantasy sports and occasionally indulge his inner Deadhead and a guy who has made peace with a likely fate of putting out critically adored records that are lucky to sell 20,000 copies. Although he started playing with the Jicks almost two decades ago, he’s always going to be the guy from Pavement, a ‘90s indie juggernaut whose debut Slanted and Enchanted is often hailed as one of the most influential albums ever made. That’s fine, because Sparkle Hard is the kind of quirky and realized record made by an artist with nothing to prove.
Of course, that late-career comfort is no doubt helped by his ease in writing the kind of hooks that practically declare squatters’ rights after they’ve settle deep into your head. One of those hooks is apparent on “Bike Lane,” a rocking indictment of suburban living before taking an abrupt and uncharacteristically literal veer into lyrics expressing solidarity with Black Lives Matter in a nod to Freddie Grey. Malkmus abandons his typical opaque wordplay in the subdued, breezy “Middle America” where the singer bluntly proclaims “Men are scum/I won’t deny/May you be shit-faced the day you die.” However, he retreats to his old tricks of writing clever bon mots that entertain kids with liberal arts degrees on “Refute,” his country duet with Kim Gordon. In this twangy charmer, the two take the piss out of the dissolution of a relationship between a hyper-sophisticated couple not unlike herself and former husband and Sonic Youth co-founder Thurston Moore. The allure of Gordon’s presence isn’t so much in the strength of her vocal, but in the way she sounds like she’s enjoying herself. She barely stifles a laugh it comes time to deliver the lyrics “She wooed her with Ritalin and drugged me high/Egon Schiele prints and French fries.” By the time you get to the end of the album, Malkmus makes sure to remind you that he’s still a ‘70s rock enthusiast who is not above a show-boating guitar move, like playing it behind his neck, with the closing seven-minute freakout “Difficulties – Let Them Eat Vowels.”
In a recent Washington Post interview, Malkmus talked about how his label Matador put the kibosh on an album of songs he sang over keyboards and a drum machine in favor or a more on-brand Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks record. Fortunately, Malkmus also happened to have the songs that would become Sparkle Hard in his back pocket. The fact that Malkmus had such a diverse and nuanced album just sitting around is astonishing in and of itself, but the more off beat moments on the new album, like when he plays around with autotune or adds a horn section, make me wish his label would release the jokingly titled “Groove Denied” so we can see what the indie elder statesman produces when he fully coddles his inner weirdo.