If the lyrics weren’t so sharp and the wry observations so focused, you’d swear Stephen Malkmus just invited some friends over and recorded an album over a quiet evening in the garage after work. The 15 tracks that comprise, Mirror Traffic, Malkmus’ latest endeavor with his band of collaborators, the Jicks, flow by with that breezy feeling that has become a hallmark of Malkmus’ solo work. Having spent the better part of the past two years on the road with a reunited Pavement, it would be understandable to dismiss Malkmus’ new tunes as an odds and ends collection of hurried and undeveloped songs. However, as longtime fans and music critics can attest, it’s a bad move to underestimate Malkmus.
Vintage Malkmus lyrics appear throughout the album, as he sardonically pokes fun at a variety of targets including aging Pavement fans: “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks/A scary thought/In the 2K’s”, detached hipsters: “I can’t even do one sit up/Sit ups are so bourgeoisie”, modern malaise: “Too busy putzin’ around on the Internet/Revel in the disconnect”, and corrupt politicians: “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blow job.”
Firing off subtle jabs at society is Malkmus’ lyrical strength. He is adept at turning a witty phrase or dropping an understated line that has the listener rewinding the track to see if he really said what you thought he said. These are fine characteristics, and Malkmus wears them well; however, over the course of a full-length album, he runs the risk of caricature at certain points. This problem is magnified towards the latter half of the album, as Malkmus’ detached irony wears down some of the finer musical highlights. “Spazz” chugs along with a punkish intensity that begs for subject matter a little more serious than Malkmus’ snippets of awkward, adolescent summer love. “Tune Grief” blazes out of the speakers like a Felix Hernandez fastball but suffers from unintelligible lyrics, and “Forever 28” revels in a bit of Ween-like silliness that seems beneath Malkmus’ capabilities. These are just a few missteps, though. He nails the emotional withdrawal that plagues some long-term relationships on “All Over Gently”: “It’s all over gently/The sweetest goodbye/Sweet little sassafras I want you out by July”, and envelopes “Fall Away” in a gorgeous wall of harmonics that serves as a solid near bookend to a hard charging set.
At this point in time, Malkmus deserves a lot of leeway. Following his whims for over 20 years has made him an indie rock legend and left listeners with a bevy of selections to call a favorite. Taking some of the farce is part of the deal, but one that is always an adventurous joy with which to listen along. Mirror Traffic doesn’t change Malkmus’ game, but it adds to his imposing repertoire which continues to get better with time.