Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - "Cold Son" (Real Emotional Trash)
Pavement, like David Lynch, seem to be an objective fact of culture. Almost two decades after the fact, Stephen Malkmus’ former band’s output still doesn’t quite sound like anything else. Their quartet of albums is required listening in the same way Lynch’s films are required watching: not yet part of official culture, they’re a socially-enforced rite of passage. And, sure, they’re satisfying experiences on their own terms, and far from exhausted in their influence, yet they’re also weirdly neutral. That is, you don’t stand to gain or lose anything much by championing or identifying with them; and as satisfying as take-downs can be, their status is, however fleetingly, secure.
With minor exceptions, few bands working today wear a Pavement influence on their sleeve, and this is just as much a result of the band’s work being ambiently there in culture as it is a consequence of their music being genuinely and unironically affecting. As anyone with passing knowledge of the currently favored Iron John by-way-of art school approach to male catharsis rock (a charge led by Animal Collective) can tell you, Pavement’s style of emoting reeks of Gen-X ambivalence. And this is a hard thing to swallow in the wake of Gen-Xers’ public shift from layabout skeptics to grad-schooled, nominally non-traditional professionals. You know, the kind of people who now deploy the term “shiftless hippie” with no perceptible irony (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say “with post-irony”).
These generational and historical shifts are perfectly well understood through the aesthetic disjunction between Malkmus’ current project and his former band. But if you go into Real Emotional Trash thinking that longer songs and less guardedly goofy words are a substantial rather than quantitative change, congratulations: you’ve earned your disappointment. Pavement still sounds a little edgy because, for all their self-awareness, they had the moxie to make turds like “Conduit for Sale!” work. On the other hand, Malkmus solo (w/ or w/o the Jicks) has done everything to earn the dad-rock epithet, and RET’s reedy, ramblin’ stoner jams stand little chance of pulling the rug out from underneath any of his listeners. He’s traded generalized skepticism for an entirely decent and mild conservatism; a track like “Baltimore” is a pleasant way of confirming that his music has long since stopped trying to win anyone over. Like Stephin Merritt, his East Coast cognate, his songwriting chops and eye for upper-middle-class detail are too-available excuses for music that is often unremarkable.
The most successful of this album’s songs are the ones that are intent on proving their maturity. “Out of Reaches” and “Cold Son,” despite being slight different versions of the same song, anchor the album and equal the emotional power of Pavement jams. They can only benefit by flanking the closest thing the album has to a challenge to its listeners: the title track, which runs for 10 pungent minutes. That song’s “boogie” movement recaps the same West Coast itinerary as “Unfair,” but where the Crooked Rain track damned and celebrated the irredeemable state’s grotesque affluence and rootlessness, “Real Emotional Trash” consists of a scenario tracing the birth of ’70s boomer hegemony out of the death drive of ’60s counterculture. Malkmus sums it up in a fairly perfect image: “down in Sausalito we had clams for dessert, you spilled chardonnay on your gypsy skirt.” The moment’s good enough to make you wish he could do something similar for his own generation.