Why You Gotta Ask? Why Don’t You Just Know?

Sparkle Hard (Matador), from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, is wan, wilful, and winning.

The first thing you notice is the Auto-Tune, smeared atop “Brethren” and “Rattler” like spicy marmalade. The second thing you notice are the strings that send “Solid Silk” and “Difficulties” soaring like runaway helium balloons. Yet Sparkle Hard, the seventh LP from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, is less reinvention than soft reboot – versatile, complex, and sequenced so impeccably that its 44 minutes flash-flood by.

Pavement, the band Malkmus led for a decade before founding the Jicks, generally progressed one aesthetic tier at a time. Since 2001’s Stephen Malkmus forward, he’s delighted in shuffling the metaphorical decks, engaging in spirited acts of songcraft-by-self-amusement untethered to the dramatic, tabloid shifts that invite gratuitous clicks and pageviews. In a sense, Sparkle Hard is of a piece with what the Jicks have been about for nearly two decades now: the riff-heavy “Rattler” lunges and leers like a holographic Keep On’ Truckin’ decal, the Kim Gordon-featuring “Refute” is all countrified delight, “Cast Off” exudes a regal, sloshed grandeur. A little of this; a little of that.

What’s changed? Well, aesthetic expansion aside, there’s a stronger sense here that guitarist/singer Malkmus, bassist Joanna Bolme, keyboard player Mike Clark, and drummer Jake Morris want to be heard beyond the diminishing, indie-rock cult for whom “Gardenia” and “Dark Wave” are enough. They’re out for blood this cycle, aiming for a semi-populist epic. “Kite” chases its own tail through interdimensional Advent calendar windows. The swirling, pastoral “Difficulties” melts into the madcap krautrock chug of “Let Them Eat Vowels”. The irrepressibly unlikely “Bike Lane” manages a hereforeto unimaginable balancing act, positing an effective intersection of #BlackLivesMatter, stoned Ramones pop-pep, and dank, matted synthesizers.

The music, Malkmus has said in interviews, always comes first; the words are afterthoughts. On albums like 2008’s Real Emotional Trash this was all too true, but with Sparkle Hard, he’s back on fine, cryptic form, writing in a deliciously self-conscious code worthy of the John Ashbery poems he cribbed from back in Pavement’s Brighten the Corners era. Very little of what he has to impart this time – in full, committed voice – is a goof, trifle, vignette, or patented Malkmus avuncular diatribe, and some of it cuts straight to the actual heart of things.

Though “I will not be one of the watchers/I will not disappear” fits comfortably into the uncomfortable sense “Middle America” has of itself, it also works as music-biz meta-commentary. When Malkmus croons “Scratched out a doggerel verse or two/To set you on your way, back to you/In a minute” on “Solid Silk” – a quilted lullaby that suggests Beck producing Thurston Moore – it’s with one sharply arched eyebrow. “Nobody sees you/Nobody stares/It’s part of the reason/Part of the dare” lays matters bare enough; “Pretend the crowd is Germany” is gagging self-reflection in a convex mirror.

Sparkle Hard debuted at #174 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums charts, sharply down from initial placements in the 40s range for its less finely wrought predecessors Mirror Traffic (2011) and Wig Out at Jagbags (2014). Slyly enough, it’s an LP about how you’re probably not even listening to it, in the same way that Erik Larsen’s long-running, under-appreciated Savage Dragon comic book has evolved into a series about how you’re probably not going to read it. But maybe you should.

VIDEO: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Middle America (Live)

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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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