Let’s start with a truth that is by no means universally acknowledged: there are some great songs spread across the four albums Stephen Malkmus released prior to Mirror Traffic.
The first, self-titled solo album is by far the most open, honest record he’s ever been responsible for, with a handful of truly beautiful low-key moments. The lyrics are less wilfully obtuse, with what may well be personal sentiments given room to breathe amongst all the tortured wordplay and literary gymnastics. During the chorus of “Church On White,” for example, Malkmus opines that “all you really wanted/was everything/plus everything/and the truth/I only poured you/half a line,” which still staggers me every time I hear it. “Pink India” and “Trojan Curfew” are less introspective, but still absolutely lush, while “Phantasies” and “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” are enjoyable pop ditties, with the latter particularly suitable for a spot of indie karaoke.
Pig Lib followed, and was another success: occasionally unhinged but mostly restrained, there’s a playfulness that permeates the record. “Vanessa From Queens” is not just a fine song, but damn-near romantic with it; more importantly, the album sees Malkmus’ love of a long, drawn-out jam become more prominent, with “(Do Not Feed The) Oyster” and “Witch Mountain Bridge” hinting at such tendencies before the near-ten-minute “1% of One” plays around with the same structure for the entirety of its running time. This would become important come album number four.
Before that, there was Face The Truth, which lacks an absolutely killer track but is worth the price of admission for the line “you said ‘done is good’/but done well is so much fucking better,” which lights up “Freeze The Saints,” a pleasant indie ballad of the sort Malkmus has become more and more comfortable with since Pavement split. A little all over the place in terms of its musical influences, there’s enough good to counteract the few tracks that don’t shine all that brightly.
Real Emotional Trash feels like an album Malkmus had been wanting to make for years: six tracks break the five-minute barrier and a seventh comes close, and he shows no fear in pushing a simple idea to breaking point (if not beyond). Always likely to be a decisive release, whilst for some it probably signified an ending, for me it was the boldest thing he’d released since Wowee Zowee. It’s not the first record I reach for from his back catalogue, but it suits certain moods perfectly, and really shows off his talent as a guitarist, which is often unfairly overlooked.
Which brings us up to the present day. So far, much of the praise Mirror Traffic has received has focused on how much the material sounds like Pavement. Indeed, ever since the band split in ’99, critics and fans alike have seemingly wanted nothing more than for Malkmus to make the next Pavement record, and to those people it never much mattered whether he did so by putting the band back together, or by returning to that sound with his solo work.
This desire is misplaced for at least a couple of reasons. Firstly, whilst the five Pavement albums all sound decidedly “Pavement,” the music changes significantly from record to record. From the lo-fi slacker rock of “Slanted & Enchanted” to the glorious experimentation of “Wowee Zowee” to the weary folk-infuenced stylings of “Terror Twilight,” each new release felt like a progression (not necessarily in terms of quality, it must be said), and felt different to the work that preceded it. And secondly - as I’ve just spent some time elucidating - Malkmus has released some great material over the last ten years.
With all that in mind, to me Mirror Traffic stands out as Malkmus’ best post-Pavement work. As eclectic as ever, there are both callbacks to all of his previous albums and moments of genuine surprise, which highlight both how innovative he continues to be and how unwilling he is to allow complacency to set in: this is everything you would hope for from a man putting out his tenth record (tenth! And that’s not even counting side projects and guest appearances). Let’s take it track by track.
A tried-and-true Malkmus indie pop song, of the sort that appear at least once on all of his albums (which is definitely a positive, given how good he is at writing them). It’s an interesting choice for the opening track because, more than anything else on the record, it invites the Pavement comparisons that so many critics have been making.
2. “No One (Is As I Are Be)”
One of the most restrained songs on the album, “No One (Is As I Are Be)” is introspective and even a touch sentimental: the kind of track most musicians would feel it necessary to build towards, its appearance so early on is disarming. The delivery of the lyrics is practically spoken word (which has always suited Malkmus), and moments of humour and insight are brilliantly alternated.
Typically Malkmus, in that it adheres to the quiet-loud template without rhyme nor reason, complete with breakdowns and build-ups that lead to more wonderful, wonderful noise. Some great lyrics, a false ending, a refrain of “you are fading fast,” and a glorious guitar solo outro: this is grade A indie rock, and probably the highpoint of the album.
4. “Brain Gallop”
A loose practise room jam that fleetingly calls to mind “The Hexx,” and is otherwise pitched somewhere between Wowee Zowee and Real Emotional Trash. That said, the “there’s not much left inside my tank today” refrain is unlike anything else in Malkmus’ oeuvre, and immediately stands out because of that. Once the ending kicks in, the guitar squall returns the listener to more familiar territory.
A short, dreamy, Terror Twilight-esque instrumental that breaks up the album nicely.
6. “Asking Price”
Switching gears several times, “Asking Price” has plenty to like about it, particularly the vocal-heavy verses, which call to mind “Transport Is Arranged” and allow Malkmus to showcase his voice at its best.
7. “Stick Figures In Love”
The guitar line that kicks off “Stick Figures In Love” is immediately arresting, and forms the entirety of the chorus, which is completely devoid of lyrics (a trick he repeats elsewhere on the album). The song is as about as musically upbeat as the record gets, and injects a much-needed bit of energy after several slower jams.
The midpoint of the album, whilst “Spazz” is not quite as wild as its name suggests, it is another guitar heavy track. It starts off at a rampant pace, quickly morphs into jam band territory, and then ends where it began.
9. “Long Hard Book”
If the first half of the album was punctuated by songs that evoke Malkmus’ past glories (without ever directly imitating them), the second half showcases how adept he is at introducing new influences to his music. “Long Hard Book” is pretty from the offset, sounding like part two of “Jumblegloss,” with the same sense of dreaminess.
10. “Share The Red”
Perfectly restrained and ambiguously introspective, “Share The Red” could easily have slotted alongside “Old To Begin” and “Type Slowly” on Brighten The Corners. The subtle guitar work showcases Malkmus’ range, and the piano melody that mimics it – bringing the song to a close – is wonderful.
11. “Tune Grief”
Practically surf rock, “Tune Grief” is a couple of minutes of seemingly simple fun that benefits from multiple listens.
12. “Forever 28″
Ditto “Forever 28,” which boasts more great guitar work, the best drumming to be found on the album, and a fabulous ending. The sort of hidden gem that only stands out once you’ve listened to a record from cover to cover several times.
13. “All Over Gently”
Vaguely countrified guitar twangs underpin the start of “All Over Gently,” before gentle vocal harmonies build towards a chorus that, interestingly enough, never arrives. Instead, the song lurches in a number of different directions before ending in mock-collapse.
14. “Fall Away”
One of the standout tracks, “Fall Away” is a lovely little song that is carried along by gentle drums, slight guitar, and some excellent vocals. The only cause for complaint is, that at just over two minutes long, it ends far too soon.
15. “Gorgeous Georgie”
“Gorgeous Georgie” is an appropriate way to bring an end to proceedings, in that it incorporates elements of all of Malkmus’ previous solo records. The lyrics recall “Craw Song,” and the music is more Stephen Malkmus than anything else on the album.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Mirror Traffic: a superlative record that is well worth your time, and further proof that Stephen Malkmus doesn’t need Pavement to make great music.