Pig Lib, Stephen Malkmus’ last solo outing, is a great record. It feels like a genuine musical achievement; as if SM has learned to tease his songwriting flair through more than the gutsy guitar performances epitomised by Pavement. Yup, that pig was well and truly libbed. Has brand-spanking-new LP Face The Truth returned to take us even further from Shady Lane, or has Malkmus found his niche? Intriguing.
There’s no getting away from it – Face The Truth is strikingly similar to its predecessor: The blissful hooks, the trademark SM vocals, the wordsmith’s vocabulary, the occasional prog freak-out. To the dedicated Malkmite, however, Face The Truth continues the exciting progression seen throughout SM’s solo career. We’re starting to see more ambitious instrumentation, a less organic sound, and the sonic hat-doffing to boyhood influences is more transparent than ever (Moby Grape, anyone?).
Pencil Rot serves as a bold declaration of intentions; its crunching synth vs guitar intro a metaphor for the clash of sensibilities ahead. “There’s a villain in my head, and he’s giving me shocks,” cries Malkmus. “Shocks, shocks, shocks!” echo the Jicks; “Shocks, shocks, shocks!” It’s an energy that hasn’t poured forth to this extent since the bile-laden Embassy Row on Pavement’s 1997 tour de force Brighten The Corners. He may be ageing like a fine wine, but he’s lost none of his vitriol.
It Kills, by comparison, is conventional Malkmus, which, for those in the know, is a byword for ‘engaging’. As with efforts of old, the pendulum swings back and forth between blissful and outright curious: It Kills soon subdues in favour of I’ve Hardly Been – a darkly comical evocation of the Brothers Grimm or the Judder Man, replete with crunked-up chorus. Follow-up track Mama is, as perhaps expected, riven in the jangled, lop-sided Pavement mould, yet remains warmly refreshing.
Freeze The Saints, alas, follows the same formula to somewhat less exciting results, before the din of Loud Cloud Crowd evokes imaged of SM in a cream cardigan, harmonising carfeully with himself. If it were any more Art Garfunkel he’d be ginger. Moving swiftly on, No More Shoes serves as the obligatory eight minutes of prog, and, as has been pointed out before now, is a more cohesive, accomplished take on Pig Lib’s mammoth 1% Of One. He may be favouring his synth hand as of late, but Malkmus remains an intimidating talent on the axe.
Kindling For The Master toes the line of synth tinkling, and stumbles across into the realm of disco every now and then. Still, it’s an all-welcome distraction from the 2005’s waves of one dimensional revivalism. Post-Paint Boy, the album’s first single, is standard fare, and yet should not be taken as granted – material like this has been 20 years in the making. Baby C’mon’s terrific riff stabs itself into the air like a firework display, SM taking a lung-full and bellowing the track’s title as if his life depended on it.
Face The Truth’s closer Malediction may sound downtrodden, but applies a certain vintage, and defines the facing of the truth, whatever that truth has been: “So long, goodbye to the nervous apprehension… The road to rejection is better than no road at all” sings Malkmus, and, as ever, he’s absolutely right. Pig Lib Part Two? Maybe so, but there are enough subtle evolutions here to keep any SM follower listening intently until the cows come home (and face the truth).