When a CV is stuffed with indie credentials as bright as Pavement and Silver Jews, not to mention providing the voice of Bob Dylan for Cate Blanchett in the movie I’m Not There, you have a right to expect something more from Stephen Malkmus than an album sounding as if he’s overdosed on the Led Zeppelin comeback.
This is not to say that Real Emotional Trash isn’t a good record. It is, but it’s also overly riff heavy and just a bit stuck in the worst excesses of the mid-1970s blues-folk-pop-prog nexus, the antithesis of the direction in which his former collaborator David Berman has moved. And this is a shame.
It’s been three years since his previous offering, 2005’s Face The Truth. Take a trip back and you’ll note that reviews at the time were guarded – perhaps anticipating what was to come. Yet it was generally considered that he was still moving forward, despite the (justified) comparisons to Moby Grape.
The journey has continued, but en route he’s lost something of himself. Dragonfly Pie, with its progressive riffs, earnest vocals and dips into poppier bridges, is polished and accomplished in a way that belongs on an album by Fairport Convention or Fleetwood Mac. The nod to the avant garde we’d expect from Malkmus is sadly missing.
Stretch reality a little and you could point to leftfield similarities with Flaming Lips if you dig hard, but he’s not pushing boundaries in the way that bands such as, for example, The Mars Volta or Wolfmother are if you have to go down that route at all. Guitar solos that go on too long and are too proud to be called axe raise their head far too often throughout. It’s not a good thing that the title track is more than 10 minutes long.
All of this means, of course, that hardcore Malkmus fans will probably love Real Emotional Trash. It’s certainly unlikely to upset anyone who’s enjoyed his work before. The lyrics are still a cut above the average, the addition of Janet Weiss, ex of Sleater Kinney, on drums and backing vocals adds a nice new dimension. But there’s nothing here that shines in the way you’d hope a man of Malkmus’s talents should.
Ironically, the best moments come when he steps back from the prog godhead and strips things back to basics – the pared back vocal section of Hopscotch Willie, the dreaminess of Cold Son, the comedown paranoid of We Can’t Help You.
In the end, it’s an album too mired in the past. Progressive rock was, by definition, meant to push boundaries and to move forward. You can’t do that by recreating the past and so, ultimately, Real Emotional Trash fails – beautifully and melodically, yes, but it fails nonetheless.