Demonstrating once again how he has won the minds and hearts of English majors worldwide, ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus delivers eleven songs of melancholy mischief and euphonic meditations on independence, love, sexuality, breaking up, and desire all filtered through his typically keen wordplay, strangely lovely metaphors and surrealist imagery. Much less overtly optimistic than his first release, 2001's Stephen Malkmus, Pig Lib (Matador) shows that Malkmus -- along with Jicks bassist Johanna Bolme, drummer John Moen, and keyboardist Mike Clark -- have grown as a band both musically (the guitar is used in ways previously unexplored) and conceptually (this album would be Dada if it took itself that seriously).
"Ramp of Death" is classic Malkmus in its turn of phrase and slightly jaded yet sanguine romanticism. When he sings, "Before we were on our way up the ramp of death / I can say that you moved me / in many rich directions good and bad," his ambiguous and detached sentimentality disguises the potent emotions barely hidden beneath the surface. The song's beauty is surpassed only by the loveliness of "Us," on which Malkmus, Moen, and Bolme sing in harmony about the beginning of a new relationship, one that teems with innocence and "trees to climb." "Vanessa from Queens" is a silly and smart exploration of affection, time, and place with lyrics like "got your ballerina tights on my head / in a samurai pose on the bed" that can simultaneously induce giggles and swoons.
The album's semi-prog "Do Not Feed the Oyster," is an knock-you-out summertime anthem full of "crimson alligators" and man-eating oysters that evolves into a treatise on expectations and suspicions in love, all delivered in Malkmus's alternatively deadpan and falsetto vocals. More serious tracks create images of claustrophobia and regret: "Sacrifice for you is just flirtation / and friendship a cold convenience" from "Animal Midnight" begins a poppy dirge (yes, it's possible) about lost love and potential. The album's centerpiece, "1% of One," is the story of a "blind soundman from Netherlands," who falls asleep while mixing Pig Lib. The next nine minutes are a musical transcription of his dreams.
This is a moody, complicated, and intellectual album that is, above all else, heartbreakingly beautiful in both its seriousness and its goofiness. Watch out, world: The Jicks' mix of surrealism, love, and theory is here to stay.
Publication date: 04/03/03