Nearly 20 years after helming Pavement’s landmark Slanted and Enchanted, Stephen Malkmus has maintained a steady presence in the indie scene, cracking wise over a continuous stream of varyingly smart material. Mirror Traffic, his fifth album with faithful cohorts the Jicks, lands somewhere in the middle of his output, an album that, despite production work from the normally conspicuous Beck, scarcely strays from what’s become the Malkmus template.
Most of this is due to the man himself, who, despite a nasal voice and a decidedly slight presence, dominates any song he sings on. His lyrical intransigence is so defined, his flippant delivery so insistently jaded, that this attitude alone demands attention. It’s this vocal style that made his three contributions to the I’m Not There soundtrack some of the album’s best, allowing him to twist Dylan’s familiar words into new permutations of astringent snark. On his own material, this method is more well trod, and anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Pavement will know what to expect: deceptively shaggy songs prone to tangents, strange repetitions, non sequiturs, and archly literate asides.
Malkmus makes the usual perfunctory attempts to break new ground, which, as in the past, include messing with electronics and keyboards to flesh out his usual reedy sound. The most significant of these seems to be the selection of Beck as producer, but that choice proves kind of a bust, as Malkmus remains the main attraction and there’s barely any indication that the former was even involved. Considering this, some credit definitely needs to go to the Jicks, who, despite a rotation of members, have functioned as a consistent anchor for the singer. Their ability to create songs that sound messy and indolent while remaining impressively tight continues to be remarkable, and the minimalist accompaniment on songs like “Tigers” and “Forever 28” acts as both simple antidote to their lyrical complexity and an entertaining sideline.
The tangle of words Malkmus creates has a densely poetic slant, yet he continues to operate at a friendly nexus of high and low culture. It’s a positioning that allows liberating breaks, like the cheery refrain on “Senator” with its blunt “Everyone wants a blow job” hook, to function as a form of release rather than a dumb grab at affability. His standard of work is so smart that the stupid parts come off refreshing, and even middle-range material like Mirror Traffic feels strikingly well-crafted.