REVIEW: Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

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You're cruising with the bad kids in town.

I was probably 14 when I first listened to Pavement. During a wild hunt for lo-fi artists, I was given a very simple recommendation, which I will never forget: “Pavement <3” So, I went and downloaded the deluxe edition of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (which I, due to my dyslexia, read as Cooked Rain), and put it on before going to bed. And about 15 minutes in, I turned it off and put on The Postal Service’s record again. I just didn’t understand it.

A year later, my computer’s hard drive died. Went kaput. It was gone. All I had to my name, musically, was all of the CDs I’d burned. So, I went through all of them, and found my copy of Cooked Rain, Cooked Rain, and decided to give it one more shot. After a year, my teenage brain had grown just enough that Pavement songs made sense to me, and Cooked Rain never left my CD player for months on end, until I knew the thing front-to-back. As a confused slacker teenager, I took solace in the confused slackerhood of Stephen Malkmus, who’s nonsensical lyrics made for private anthems in my bored and lonely brain. It was part of what made me want to learn to play the guitar (I give most of the credit to The Hold Steady, but that’s not important, really), and what made me realize that not all songs had to make much sense. It also taught me that it was okay to not know where you were going with your life.

I saw Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks on the night that their last album, Real Emotional Trash, was released. If you’ve heard that record, you know that it would be the kind of album Syd Barrett would have released if he was in Pavement: it’s noisy, it wanders constantly, and it makes very little sense, even though its storytelling is very good. It was a mess of an album, and to this day, I still love it immensely. And now, we have Mirror Traffic, which couldn’t be more at odds with Real Emotional Trash. It’s worth noting that, despite the fact that Mirror Traffic is five songs longer than its predecessor, it’s also five minutes shorter. What does that say about the record? Simple: it’s a Pavement record.

Another digression: In the space between Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavilion, Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) released Person Pitch, an album with such a personality, it bled into the creation of Merriweather Post Pavilion, and it shows. In a move that felt like God was listening, in between Emotional Trash and Mirror Traffic, Pavement reunited. It’s entirely possible that the whirlwind tour supporting this reunion bled its way into the making of this record, but it’s not really something I would complain about: it’s an album full of short, breezy songs that feel crisp and fun, and incredibly Malk-tastic. To borrow a sentiment someone expressed to me: it’s the most Malk-y thing he’s done in years. And I absolutely love it.

From the moment “Tigers” starts, and you hear Malkmus’ air-whipped guitar tone, you can tell that it’s an incredibly different affair. To discuss his lyrics is basically pointless (they surely mean something, but it’s pointless to dissect them), but if the first line doesn’t tell you about the tone of the record, I don’t know what will: “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks / A scary thought.” It’s a line that almost feels – dare I say it – cute. And that’s how a lot of Mirror Traffic comes across. Even on “Senator,” which is an attempt at scathing political satire, comes off chipper, even with a chorus like “I know what the senator wants / What the senator wants is a blow job.” It’s gleefully profane, even mixed in with social commentary. Listening to the rest of the record, it’s clear that the album is a labor of fun above all else (gander at the rhyme “Alabaster wino / God speaks through that albino” in “Stick Figures in Love”), which makes its pointless, Pavement-esque lyrics feel worthwhile.

Listening to the album feels like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. It’s a shame that the album didn’t come out at the beginning of summer, rather than the tail end; it’s an album that feels custom-built for summer walks, road trips to the beach, and cookouts with your friends.

To critique the record almost feels beside the point. It’s clear when you listen to it that, above all else, it was released out of a sheer desire to have fun. I came into the record wanting to break it down into points, but sometimes, you just can’t do that. Mirror Traffic is one of those records that feels immune to the typical tricks used to discern the merits of an album. So, I’m just going to tell you this: if you enjoy Pavement, The Jicks, Stephen Malkmus, or guitar music in general, you’re probably going to enjoy Mirror Traffic a lot. It’s your loss if you don’t like it, but if you like any of those things, chances are, you’re going to have a blast. And if you don’t like it, just go listen to Slanted & Enchanted again and call it a day.

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