Scott Creney

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Mirror Traffic (Matador/Domino)

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Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic

By Scott Creney

Stephen Malkmus’s new album is simply brilliant. Mirror Traffic is boiling over with ideas about 21st Century life. Most of the lyrics examine the collapse of global capitalism through a range of emotions comparable to the stages of grief: ideological denial, explosions of anger and attempts at bargaining, followed by depression and withdrawal. It’s a rollicking soundtrack for the economic Armageddon exploding all around us.

Just kidding. Mirror Traffic isn’t about any of those things. As far as I can tell, it isn’t about anything at all. It’s just one more congested mess of whimsy from the former boy genius.

Oh how we loved Stephen Malkmus in our youth! One of the few indie rock Prime Ministers to ever be elected to a second term. Oh how you dominated the 90s with your style and wit, your passion and melody. But those days are over. Your riddles have run dry. Your mystery is no longer engaging. Your sense of abandon morphed along the way from ‘not giving a fuck’ into ‘not giving a shit’. Even your high-faluting, scrabble-playing, crossword-solving intellect seems to have deserted you (using ‘bourgeoisie’ as an adjective, really Stephen).

Mirror Traffic is stuffed with ideas, but nearly all of them feel half-baked. Songs are crammed with lyrics upon lyrics, multiple chord changes, key changes, varied instrumentation, tempo changes, etc., but for no discernible reason, to no real effect. Only a fool would ask what the songs on Mirror Traffic are about. It’s a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that upon completion reveals a brown wooden duck. ‘Brain Gallop’ has a nice melodic hook, but it’s attached to a lyric — “There’s not that much left inside my tank today/There’s just enough to go and blow you away” — that, in its unearned simplicity, undercuts whatever momentum the song might be building. Then Malkmus shifts into that mocking, half-assed falsetto that suggests he thinks the whole thing is a god-damned joke and you just have to throw your hands up in the air. If you’re smart, you’ll skip ahead before the goofy/silly/tongue-in-cheek guitar solo comes along.

What about that sardonic wit Malkmus is so famous for? Well, I’ve always thought the word ‘witty’ was a word people use to describe someone who isn’t actually funny — the funny person makes you laugh where the witty person makes you smile. I don’t know. Does this make you laugh?

I know what the senator wants. What the senator wants is a blowjob.
I know what everyone wants. What everyone wants is a blowjob.

Yowsa! Zing! I mean, as comedy goes, SM was always more Jerry Seinfeld than Bill Hicks, more David Sedaris than Richard Pryor. But ‘Senator’ is probably the high point of this album. You can decide for yourself whether that’s high enough. By the way, How the fuck does something “fade away like a stone”?

It’s hard not to shake the feeling of pointlessness hanging over the album. The songs are stuffed with chords because the songs are stuffed with chords, not because they take the song anywhere. All the fussiness feels like an attempt on SM’s part to try and keep things interesting — not for us, he could care less — but to try and keep things interesting for himself. A heavy weight of obligation hangs all over this album. One pictures SM shrugging his shoulders before mumbling, ‘That’s OK, right? It’s got some okay moments, doesn’t it?’

And one pictures Beck, the (all but invisible, inconsequential) producer of Mirror Traffic, nodding his support.

Here’s a link to the first video, courtesy of The New York Times. Take the time to read some Paul Krugman while you’re over there, and try not to think too hard about Bobbie Gentry.

(continues overleaf)

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