I know what the Senator wants. The Senator wants a Pavement reunion. Last year, the Senator finally got what he wanted, as the seminal 90s band got back together for old times’ sake and toured around the world. Beyond touring there weren’t any solid plans, save to say that maybe, when hell froze over, the guys would stay together and make some new music. The kibosh was pretty much put on that late last year, when as Pavement were nearing the end of their tour dates, frontman Stephen Malkmus announced a new record with his backing band the Jicks. Like clockwork then, the reunion ended and it’s almost like the whole thing was a year-long dream. The difference of now vs. 2009 though is that Malkmus is riding a wave of revived popularity and respect courtesy of said reunion. Whereas his last couple records, either fully on his own or with the Jicks have been released with far less fanfare and attention than Pavement’s stuff, suddenly the name Malkmus is on everyone’s lips. To be perfectly fair though, the last couple albums Malkmus has put out weren’t necessarily worth a whole lot of fanfare or attention in the first place. With eyes back on his own stuff, here comes “Mirror Traffic”, a 16 track, 50 minute musical journey that seeks to keep that wave of newfound prosperity going, albeit this time without his old bandmates in tow.
The last album release that had Malkmus’ name on it was 2008’s “Real Emotional Trash”, a record that was interesting in part because it found the notorious “slacker” taking things in a decidedly noodling, almost jam band-like direction. As the cover to that record featured a swirl, the music often felt like it was going around in circles itself, featuring extended solos and long instrumental passages that went nowhere. Credit at least partially goes to Beck, producer of “Mirror Traffic”, for taking those prog-rock tendencies and effectively muting them. What we get instead is almost a throwback record for Malkmus. Its closest cousin is his 2001 self-titled solo record, the first thing he put out after Pavement’s original breakup. In that respect it doesn’t quite qualify to be called “Pavement-esque”, but the jangly, loose feel of the record is more classic and accessible than most of what Malkmus has put out in recent years. That’s apparent right from the opening track “Tigers”, a playful little fuzzed out garage rocker with a light twang of steel pedal guitar for good measure. With its naturally snarky lyrics and strong hook, it marks one of the most easily likable songs Malkmus has put together in years. That’s not even a single, either.
The first single honor goes to “No One Is (As I Are Be)”, a quieter acoustic folk number that sounds like it belongs more on Beck’s “Sea Change” than it does “Mirror Traffic”. Yet the sound wears well on Malkmus, and though a record full of those kinds of songs would likely be poorly received by a devoted fan base, it’s nice every now and then. Plus you get treated to classic lines like, “I cannot even do one sit-up/sit-ups are so bourgeoisie”, which are simply a delight. Also delightful is “Senator”, which topically speaking would seem to be about sex scandals in government. “I know what the Senator wants/the Senator wants a blow job”, Malkmus starts out saying. In the end, the Senator wants a blow job because “everyone” wants a blow job. The deeper meaning here is not sexual in nature at all, but rather the observation that our government officials (and everyone, for that matter) are simply looking for self-gratification. Whether it’s a blow job or a sandwich or stricter gun laws, we’re all looking to get what we want, everyone else (even constituents) be damned.
While the first few tracks on “Mirror Traffic” can leave you with the thought that maybe the record is front-loaded with all the best material, the great news is how evenly the highlights are spread out. The middle section of the record is buttressed with the breezy “Stick Figures in Love” and the bi-polar tempo shifts of “Spazz”, both of which engage the listener in different ways while never pushing too far in an undesirable direction. Closer to the end you get the brisk earworm “Tune Grief” leading into the brightly hummable “Forever 28”, elevating the mood and tempo prior to the slower and somewhat pointless drag of the closing track “Gorgeous George”. That final 5 minutes of the album are easily the least interesting of the entire record, giving off the sense that maybe there were one too many songs. The good news is that you can always end the record before then, so perhaps saving that one for last was a smart move.
All the while you get the trademark lyrical wit mixed with plenty of dark moments that are endearing as they are disturbing. For as much charm as the guy exudes, he has grown more ornery and in some ways less wise than more recent records might suggest. He’s taken off his smart advice hat to yell at some kids to get off his lawn. Perhaps that mentality is natural the older you get, even as with all your life experience the wiser you get. The better word to be using here is to say that Malkmus is taking a more “mature” approach to the points he’s trying to get across, and while he is cracking jokes along the way, he’s simultaneously trying to defuse their effects by pointing out that such pessimistic attitudes can have an equally destructive effect on your own life. So while he’s not playing the fortune cookie anymore, there are still plenty of lessons to be learned across “Mirror Traffic”. You just need to dig a little deeper to uncover them. It’s small things like that which elevate this record beyond most of what Malkmus has done in the past decade with the Jicks.