What’s it like to face the truth with Stephen Malkmus? Unsurprisingly, it’s not a straightforward experience. There’s little heart-baring on his new cd, but there is a grab-bag of cryptic, prankish lyrics set to catchy melodies that, as usual, have more to offer than they seem to at first.
There’s a certain disappointment, though, in listening to a collection of songs called Face the Truth and finding them as nonchalantly disengaged as ever. As soon the elegant ellipse seems to momentarily reveal vulnerability, singing “Now I need some help to find out what I feel” (“It Kills”), he then immediately adds: “It kills the time.” Whew! How much commitment can one man take?
You might miss the emotional risk-taking, but you also can’t resist the beats and melodies on Face the Truth. I had it on my headphones on my way in to work this morning and was nodding, harmonizing and air-drumming along for most of the way. Malkmus seems endlessly inventive (though “Post Paint Boy” sounds like “Bring on the Major Leagues,” I did notice) in creating heart-stoppingly lovely melodies, like the hymn-like choral beauty of “Loud Cloud Crowd” and the gorgeous “Freeze the Saints.” The album is tender, pretty, catchy, even joyful – it just isn’t primal.
I want him to be more primal. When Malkmus bid good night to the rock and roll era on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, he did so in a song that escalated into absolutely killer passion. Where is that passion now?
That’s some of the problem of the aging rocker: what do you say about growing stability, contentment, a good relationship? Paul Westerberg stumbled with this subject matter, writing some honest but boring odes to domestic life. Malkmus hasn’t succumbed to that entirely (in fact he writes a snappy number celebrating home cooking called “Mama” that proves domesticity can yield a good pop song), but there’s some of it on Face the Truth. “Help me languish here” feels like a rephrasing of “all that we want is a shady lane.” He puts this stuff forward with more rock urgency than some of his peers have, but the subject matter seems to be resting, embracing contentment – languishing.
Some would say he’s been languishing his whole career – never quite putting it all on the line. But there have been times when he screamed (like that awesome wail of “torture!” on Slanted and Enchanted) and sounded like he was pleading to the gods for meaning, substance, belief. Maybe he was more fully engaged by the specter of rootless, drug-addled youth in the landscape he inhabited in his early days with Pavement. He’s still writing great songs, but he no longer sounds haunted, possessed, as he did when he yelled in escalating volume: “They don’t need you anymore, little girl, little boy, little girl, little boy, aaggghhhhhhh!” – a wild scream that merged with one of the greatest, most impassioned guitar solos in rock.
It was also one of the greatest screams in rock. God knows what he was screaming about – maybe he was just celebrating the crest of the song, but the emotion was there. And that willingness to be in the moment and go fucking nuts is part of what makes Malkmus great. Getting older doesn’t have to mean you stop screaming. His work has always had an air of tossed-off brilliance, but now it feels like polite brilliance. That just can’t go on forever. Happy he may be, but the laconic smartass-indie-rocker surely can’t just offer us politeness for the rest of his career.