Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks: Sparkle Hard

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Sparkle Hard
(Matador)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Stephen Malkmus hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years. The singer-songwriter and former Pavement frontman has a set of specific sonic signifiers that make his style unmistakable at first listen. His music is often rich with layered guitars, overflowing with melodic hooks and featuring the occasional off-key vocal affectation, a signature of Malkmus’ approach since first going for college-rock gold. Those guitars sometimes extend into Dead-style jams these days, and his voice has smoothed out, but by and large you know Malkmus when you hear him.

Sparkle Hard comfortably fits in alongside any of the other entries in his oeuvre, but it also feels like a more mature release. He’s mostly let go of the overt references to The Fall and Dadaist poetry that defined Pavement’s early material. Instead, he delivers the prettiest album of his recent career, one that still rocks but does so in a relaxed, contemplative manner.

“Middle America,” the album’s first single, directly addresses Malkmus’ own introspection on aging. “I will not disappear … time gets to me and I/ Wonder how to simplify.” It’s a breezy song about Big Ideas, and Malkmus defiantly declares, “I will not be one of the watchers.” He makes good on that promise, taking the listener on a tour through some of his best music in years, with styles ranging from intricate, time-signature-shifting guitar pop on “Future Suite,” ’70s-style piano pop on “Cast Off,” fuzzy glam rock on “Bike Lane,” and a hard-rocking stadium anthem on “Shiggy.”

In the opening lines of “Brethren,” Malkmus becomes reflective, “Such a fine life, relenting and good for the most part up to now/ Though you know it all could fall apart.” If it sounds like Malkmus is counting his blessings, he probably is. Though he’s made it this far on his talent, which remains as strong as ever this far down the line.