If you had told me in the mid-’90s that, in2011, Beck Hansen would produce an album by Stephen Malkmus, my little indie-rock mind would have imploded. Actually, I’m sure I would’ve maintained a hipper-than-thou countenance of disinterest. But secretly I would’ve been amazed that, all those years later, the two could still be making interesting music. Yet it’s true: Beck producedMirror Traffic, the newest full-length from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and it’s the best Malkmus effort since Pavement’s 1997 album, Brighten the Corners.
Mirror Traffic’s first single, “Senator,” is a wonderfully snarky, poli-sci-minded pop song in which Malkmus comes off like Ted Leo gone blue: “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blow job.” He also gets in some more typically Malkmusesque lines, such as when he sings, “Is it funny enough? The serious business is void enough.”
Malkmus has long peppered his lyrics with humorous turns of phrase, and MirrorTraffic is no exception. Opener “Tigers” begins with Malkmus singing, “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks/A scary thought in the 2Ks.” Of course, he now recognizes that his funnier lines risk misinterpretation, warning on “Brain Gallop,” “These words are such bitter friends/Come back to bite you in the rearest of ends.” But he still makes room to adopt a silly British accent on “Tune Grief,” channeling SCTV’s Brit-punk parody band, The Queen Haters.
In that respect, Beck and Malkmus might be ideal collaborators. Their biggest-selling hits—“Loser” and “Cut Your Hair,” respectively—teetered on the precipice of novelty rock. Both have also, over the past couple of decades, learned to balance zingers with personal themes and matured into technically accomplished musicians and songwriters. It helps that Malkmus surrounds himself with the Jicks, who’ve never sounded so cohesive or stylistically diverse—take the casual country lope of “Long Hard Book” or the progged-out atmospherics of the instrumental interlude “Jumblegloss.” On “Forever 28,” Malkmus cynically sings, “No one is your perfect fit/I do not believe in that shit/Don’t you know that every bubble bursts.” Maybe, but he shouldn’t let go of this latest musical partnership anytime soon.