If Stephen Malkmus as the head of Pavement was the charming (if aloof) slacker genius, then Stephen Malkmus the solo artist has been something more stubborn and frustrating. As the face of Pavement, he may have seemed too carefree, but the music never reflected that shrug. His solo work is another story. It's been solid, but nearly all of it (with the exception of the unpredictably great Face the Truth) is good but not great. They all feel like they hit the wall of Malkmus's interest. Stephen Malkmus was tuneful and often great, if predictable. Pig Lib felt a bit too in his wheelhouse, eccentric in ways we've heard before. And Real Emotional Trash just felt sluggish, the guitar jamming intricate but tossed off, the songs themselves never quite finding shape in the slogging atmosphere of the record.
But now, thankfully, Malkmus's fifth record, Mirror Traffic, might be the first since Face the Truth to not hit that wall of fatigue. With Beck in the producer's chair, and Janet Weiss drumming on her last record as a member of the Jicks, Malkmus has come back to life. These songs make for his catchiest set as a solo artist, but they also surprise from song to song. They all ride on a laid-back summer breeze feel -- this is easily the warmest sounding Malkmus record -- but none of them slip into dull or slack.
In fact, this is very much like a Pavement record in that it has its bizarre moments, but there are also four or five bonafide singles on this album. "Senator," despite its blue content ("What the senator wants is a blow job") is an infectious rock song, with crunching guitars and turn-on-a-dime shifts that don't sap the melodies at all. Opener "Tigers" is a purely sweet power-pop tune, a perfect mix of acoustic strum and echoing riffs along with a sun-drenched, big chorus with Malkmus hitting an impressive high note at its climax. "Asking Price" is a more subdued but no less catchy rock song, while "Tune Grief" is a distortion drenched charger, clocking in just over two minutes and building the album's momentum for its great homestretch.
There's also plenty of Malkmus's penchant for slower, mid-tempo numbers here. These are also the places where Beck's production shines through. Fresh off his work on Thurston Moore's Demolished Thoughts, Beck proves himself a great producer if only because he plays to his artists' strengths. He applies just enough of his sepia-toned country vibes (on, say, "Jackass") to the excellent acoustic number "No One Is (As I Are Be)" and the bluesy rock of "Brain Gallop." But his greatest contribution is warming up the tones here. Check out the brightness of the hook on "Stick Figures in Love" of the perfectly echoed solo on the spacier "Share the Red." The mixes here seem to juxtapose Malkmus's jangling, loose playing against Weiss's tight, intricate percussion. The two work perfectly together, with Weiss adding propulsion to any moment Malkmus wants to slacken his play (even she couldn't pull that off on Real Emotional Trash).
Mirror Traffic shifts tempos and genres perfectly from song to song. There's the blues-infused rock Malkmus has always delved into, but also sweet pop tunes, touches of country, and even untethered, quirky rock songs ("Spazz" is aptly named). Its scattershot vibe ends up sounding more like the organized chaos of Beck's Odelay than, say, Pavement's Wowee Zowee and that's a good thing. You'll also get plenty of Malkmus's off-kilter wit, with lines like "Push-ups are so bourgeoisie" and "I saw you streaking in your Birkenstocks, a scary though in the 2K's" to keep you smirking along with him through this set.
There's a youthful energy to this record that I thought Malkmus had lost, and to see him recapture it -- not to mention write his best set of songs in years -- is a small but satisfying surprise. That zeal may hold it back a little bit, since at 15 songs and over 50 minutes the record can feel crowded in the middle, even if the songs remain strong individually. But make no mistake, Stephen Malkmus is back with Mirror Traffic, in a way he wasn't with the Pavement reunion, which is to say in a way that reaches past nostalgia and easy money and is based in great music built to last. If you've spent four albums waiting for his definitive solo statement, well, you just might have it now.