After two years, former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus has returned with a very convincing follow-up to his 2001 self-titled solo debut. Doffing Pavement after releasing their worst album in 1999, Malkmus produced a solo album that seemed nothing more than a dumping ground for Terror Twilight rejects. What resulted were twelve catchy pop songs that seemed to signify a new era for Malkmus. Each of them was heavily Malk-centric, relying solely on his guitar work and vocals. A quick study of the liner notes also revealed that he took over the bass for one of the songs.
With Pavement’s final album Terror Twilight and Malkmus’ debut self-title as my only recent frame of reference, I’ll admit that my anticipation of Pig Lib was laced with dread. Though we all blamed producer Nigel Godrich for Terror Twilight and dismissed the self-title as Malkmus tomfoolery, we knew that he may not weather another mediocre album.
Enter Pig Lib. The astute fan will notice the seemingly cosmetic change instantly: “SM & Jicks” is emblazoned across the front. Though his backup band was credited as such in his debut, they were not included on the cover. This subtle change permeates throughout the entire record. In their two-year absence, the Jicks have spawned a keyboard player whose contribution to this album, especially on “Vanessa from Queens,” is integral. Malkmus relies much more heavily on the musicianship of the Jicks, reaching its apex with the album’s closer, “Us.” Bassist Joanna Bolme’s delicate backup vocals create a texture in this song unlike anything else Malkmus has released. Her voice can be heard on a number of other songs on the album as well.
Longtime Pavement fans will be excited to hear Malkmus back in his element, and I predict “(Do Not Feed the) Oyster” will be their favorite song. If you close your eyes and just listen, you can almost hear this one in between your two favorite songs on Wowee Zowee. In true Malkmus fashion, the lyrics make little to no sense, but the greatness of this song is unmistakable.
“Vanessa from Queens” is the link between Pig Lib and the self-title. The song sounds like it would comfortably fit on the self-title, but it would be among the best. Neo-Jick Mike Clark’s keyboards drive “Vanessa,” but Malkmus’ touching vocals are nothing short of heartbreaking. As he pleads, “Why don’t you let me let me let me love you?” the listener cannot help but chuckle.
The most noteworthy song on Pig Lib is the nine-minute epic “1% of One.” Easily Malkmus’ longest song on record, it also features the second time he’s ever name-dropped his own band in a song. The opening features a narrative about a blind, Dutch soundman mixing an unknown album. After two verses and an unbridled foray into the world of Malkmus-falsetto, he embarks on a roaring guitar jam that will have you reaching for your lighter.
Though Pig Lib won’t win over many new Stephen Malkmus followers, it will silence the naysaying of the early Pavement fans. Malkmus has created a batch of well-conceived songs that will likely prove to be one the best albums of the year.