For someone so lyrically and reputationally sardonic, Stephen Malkmus’ songs and melodies are often pretty upbeat and cheerful — and without getting into a “best since” pissing match, his new “Sparkle Hard” may be his most approachable album since Pavement’s days of yore.
Over the course of 17 years and six previous albums, he and his Jicks wandered down some daunting musical rabbit holes, and while there’s no shortage of imaginative arrangements and knotty melodies here, Malkmus has said he wanted this album to be more direct, and it is; the experimentation of the past has been distilled and absorbed into the tighter and more concise sound. This is probably due in no small measure to producer Chris Funk of the Decemberists (no stranger to idiosyncratic singers), who diversifies the band’s palette without ever cluttering it, via keyboards, percussion, subtle effects and even a Left Banke-esque string quartet on “Solid Silk.” Elsewhere, there’s deceptively intricate intertwining of guitars and vocals on “Future Suite”; “Refute” has flashes of Pavement’s classic “Range Life” and features Kim Gordon weighing in with an uncharacteristically perky verse.
Lyrically it’s vintage Malkmus — “Don’t speak your dumb wisdom/ I’m not so easily confused” is another in a long line of withering one-liners — although “Bike Lane” is an uncharacteristically topical track whose bouncy, fuzzed-out rhythm and jaunty vocal contrast jarringly with lyrics about the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray while in police custody. “The cops that killed Freddie/ Sweet young Freddie Gray/ They got behind him with their truncheons/ And choked the life right out of him … Poor cops so busy shuttling the miscreants from the streets to the station/ Kick off your jackboots, it’s time to unwind.” The song’s music, melody and chorus (such as it is), which says simply “Another beautiful bike lane,” are an unsettling contrast with the lyrics, which is presumably exactly what Malkmus had in mind.
He’d also probably snort at the terms like “maturity” and “return to form” that this album is likely to evoke, but the shoe fits. With nary a weak track, “Sparkle Hard” finds Malkmus hitting a new peak nearly 30 years into his career.