The greatest story in Nineties indie-rock was watching Pavement grow from boutique noise aesthetes into one of America’s truly fine bands. In the 19 years since they closed up shop, it’s been equally fun seeing frontman Stephen Malkmus relax into an excellent solo career marked by a warmth, humor and generosity, growing past his early days as the “ironic” “Prince of Slack.” Over the course of seven albums, he’s stretched out as a guitarist and opened up as a songwriter, sometimes even gesturing towards a kind of tastefully opaque midlife realism. He’s a pretty approachable character these days: the imperiously cool indie-rock icon you could watch a Portland Trail Blazers game with.
His latest with his post-Pavement crew the Jicks has everything we’ve come to expect from him: effortless Cali-kissed tunefulness and grand guitar jabber steeped in prog, folk and soft rock, perfect for a mellowing, kids-having fanbase who’d rather listen to Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees these days than their old Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 albums. It’s not quite as good as his Beck-produced 2011 album Mirror Traffic but it’s a more immediate than his last LP, 2014’s Wig Out at Jagbags.
Opener “Cast Off” starts with Malkmus on piano, hits dragon-tailed liftoff like a pastoral Sonic Youth and lands back home in three liquid minutes. “Future Suite” is sunny and slippery, with multi-tracked vocal swirls that bring to mind the Yes of “Your Move.” The album’s big anthem is the fuzztone-happy rocker “Shiggy,” a celebration of the skills at bullshit detection he refined as a youth in the underground with a sweet, free-blowing solo he might not have thrown himself into so unselfconsciously in the “pretend you’re not trying too hard” early-Nineties.
Malkmus doesn’t display his wry humor as much as usual on Sparkle Hard (though “Refute,” a country duet with Kim Gordon, is a hilarious portrait of Portlandian romantic intrigue). But the album still manages to generate a unique empathy for the world and those enduring it around him: “Fiscal plague, information dust/Piled over everyone/Everyone of us/It’s a violation,” he sings on the lovely “Solid Silk” against therapeutically cushy synths and strings. The hard-charging “Bike Lane” gets even realer, contrasting the activist concerns of yuppie liberals (“another beautiful bike lane”) with lyrics that honor the late Freddie Gray, who was killed by Baltimore police in 2015.
The album’s sweetest moment might be “Middle America.” It’s Malkmus at his most straightforwardly graceful, strumming a folkie melody like a guy in his backyard figuring life out at his own easeful pace, balancing everyday worry (“time gets me and I wonder how to simplify”) with goofy sweet nothings (“kiss yourself metaphorically”), capping it off with a aphoristic #metoo toast: “Men are scum, I can’t deny/May you be shitfaced the day you die.” Words to live by for sure.