After the ominous, chugging riffs that set the pace for opener "Dragonfly Pie" and the rest of Real Emotional Trash, Malkmus intones, "You are the bold expression/ Of all your parents’ flaws." In the next verse he addresses the unfortunate son again, who is "cursed to be named after jazz songs/ High school principles." From on high, the Jicks’ ringleader spits his acid condemnations of the preceding generation. His dark verses give way to more lighthearted — though still disheartening — wordplay in the mantra of "Can’t be what you want to be/ Gotta be what you ought to be." Then, as the narrator finally slips into the role of son, Malkmus revisits the playful bite for which he’s famous: Over lithe keyboards and metallophone-ringing synths, he pleads again and again, "Shake me off the knife because I want to go home."
The song certainly carries undertones of Vietnam-era protest music ("ghostly Iraqi in star ship"), but "Dragonfly Pie" comes off more like an allegory for Malkmus’s own musical development. Given the narrator’s rapid skin-shifting, the jarring changes in mood, and Pavement’s long shadow, such an escapist sentiment makes plenty of sense. This isn’t the restlessness of Face the Truth that led to one of Malkmus’s most musically engaging albums in years; Real Emotional Trash is a questioning of the very principles behind "musical innovation," of the relationship between inheritance and creativity.
The next three songs delve farther into generational relationships. The grooving "Hopscotch Willie" is about a patsy condemned to jail, judged for the "guilty face" he inherited and "this dirty DNA" that his parents left him "in place of all the love they should have given." "Cold Son" drops the ironic playfulness of the preceding songs (at least musically), opting for surreally distorted guitars and moody keyboards reminiscent of Pig Lib‘s dark odyssey, "Animal Midnight." Despite the cutesiness of lyrics like "Who was it that said that the world was my oyster?/ I feel like a nympho stuck in a cloister," there persists a serious sense of malaise, of manifest destiny and genetic limitation. This restless sentiment gives way to guilt as the song launches into a gorgeously melancholy chorus. Synth pads and echoing guitars drive home the pathos of a drive home; Malkmus reflects against the California sunset, "A cold son/ I am/ a cold son."
Only with the groaning garbage heap — and I mean this in the best possible sense — only in the sprawling landfill of the ten-minute title track does Malkmus turn his restlessness into unbound exuberance. The song opens with some promising guitar noodles straight out of "Water and a Seat" from Pig Lib. The effect of the first jazzing minutes of "Real Emotional Trash" is refreshing in the midst of the album’s churning psychedelia. Just as we begin to get into the Pig Lib-via-Wowee Zowee mood jams, the piece leads into one of the album’s many viscous, self-mutilating guitar solos.
But the Jicks regain ground quite capably, winding the solo up and sending it spinning into the album’s most triumphant passage. Soulful piano and classic rock ‘n’ roll licks make good on the insistence that "daddy’s on the run" as Malkmus again spills into the first person: "I traipsed over the Mexican border/ In a cheap caravan, man." The narrator rollicks and rambles through a series of surreal adventures in the spirit of "Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream" until only the guitar is left talking. The final solo nearly makes up for the wallowing interlude, and the tune concludes in echoes of the opening melody.
It remains to be emphasized that this last gleeful burst comes from the father, the trailblazer who even in his old age is capable of breaking out. The greater part of the album, though, labors under the more stifled escapism of the son. Malkmus as "son" seeks freedom in a new family name, a new stylistic "patron." Real Emotional Trash, like Pig Lib, is credited to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. Yet, whereas in Pig Lib Malkmus relies on the band as a solid launching pad for his experimentation, this latest album finds him hiding within the group’s fold. Thanks in part to the addition of ex-Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — a significant personality — and the more band-intensive process of writing and recording, Malkmus’s voice has become muffled. The result is a stiffness where his guitars once ranged and frolicked.
If there’s one thing that the man’s gained in his ex-Pavement adventures, it is a stunning sense for the guitar solo and the extended jam. In the many jams that populate Real Emotional Trash, Malkmus’s playing feels as if he were trying to force back a wall. In the limited circle of the band’s recording space, his sounds strain and crack but are allowed little space to fly (especially beneath the overpowering drums of Weiss); even Malkmus’s once-irrepressible voice is generally limited to tuneful pieties and straight-forward lyrics. What remains is a consummately "band" album of ponderous ’60s psychedelia wherein the troubadour has finally bought into a "genre."
Of course, you won’t be hearing cries of "Judas!" from this quarter; historical precedent has revealed the risk in such a condemnation — and besides, this case isn’t so bad. The album has plenty of good songs beyond the already-praised "Cold Son" and "Real Emotional Trash." "Baltimore" is a solid psychedelic odyssey of urban proportions, a trip of fake choral arrangements, bursts of garage-rock vim, and some nice solos. "Elmo Delmo" trudges through a creepier, more insular jam, making use of Face the Truth‘s lessons in freakish electronics. The late-Pavement-tinged "We Can’t Help You" might claim rights as the album’s finest moment: It takes a cold son indeed not to melt at the pining organs, to glow with the Band-inspired pianos, to fall asleep under the lovely female harmonies.
For the most part, the album succeeds insofar as it either builds upon Malkmus’s perennial themes or allows itself to indulge in experimentation. While there is nothing inherently wrong with "band" albums or psychedelic sludge, Malkmus thrives in a more uncertain territory. Historically, his best work has danced along, and even crossed, the border between tastefulness and self-indulgence.