About as unpredictable as this winter weather in Western New York, Stephen Malkmus is far too enigmatic to be labeled anything, may it be crazed, nonsensical lyricist or genius spokesperson of indie rock. Stephen Malkmus just is. He does it wonderfully, too, on Real Emotional Trash, his fourth solo album (alongside backing band, the Jicks) since leaving legendary lo-fi band Pavement and the slightly-less legendary Silver Jews.
An indie album that jams like the Grateful Dead? Has the world gone mad? That's what Malkmus has created here, and in fact, it works astonishingly well. This is especially true on the 10-plus minute title track, a true '60s groove with highlights of Television's post-punk and rapid-fire drumming by Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss. But it isn't just the epic centerpiece; the whole album is loose and mumbling as a basement of stoners sitting in beanbag chairs, noodling away at their guitars. Only three songs are under four minutes long.
One thing's for sure: this certainly isn't a Pavement album in disguise. Malkmus' hazy charm is intact, but otherwise this is nothing anyone could have expected from him, Jicks or no Jicks. Already mentioned was its breadth, but this is also the closest Malkmus has gotten in his career to a straight-on rock album. The production is surprisingly sharp - there is very little of the fuzz and white noise that textured Pavement's first two albums - and there are extended solos everywhere.
That being said, one could still argue that Real Emotional Trash could have been trimmed a tad or two. "Elmo Delmo," "Hopscotch Willie" and the title track, in spite of themselves, are all good songs that are perhaps a bit too long. The mindless wandering works on the terrific "Baltimore," a standout track amongst a concrete-strong track list. It's the catchiest Malkmus song since "Carrot Rope" and fully epitomizes this strange new direction. A few of his tracks, like "Real Emotional Trash" and "Dragonfly Pie," even have a bizarre knack for incorporating chord progressions that suggest Randy Newman or Louis Armstrong.
And then there's the wordplay, always a topic of conversation when discussing Malkmus. Sure, most of it is ridiculous nonsense, but there's something nice about its inanity, especially in the face of so many "change the world" attempts at revolution songs. The lyrics range from the cryptic ("It's warm for a witch trial/Don't you agree?/Cold are the hands of whatever touched me") to the slightly less subtle ("Wicked, wicked Wanda/I'd rather date Rwanda"). It doesn't matter that the listener doesn't understand any of it. Malkmus sounds convinced enough for all of us.
Somewhat not surprisingly, Malkmus has dropped us another chest of indie rock gold. What's a bit more surprising is the color and direction he took in getting it here. Real Emotional Trash is a real treasure, and it makes a case as one of the best albums released so far this year.