Being a cult hero has its advantages: Worship by millions isn't often part of the package, but worship by thousands ain't bad. Yet the job isn't as financially lucrative as it might seem at first blush, and maintaining this status over the long haul is damned near impossible.
Stephen Malkmus is facing this dilemma head-on, and without a crutch: Instead of using the Pavement moniker as a shield against future disinterest, he's stepping forward under his own name (in conjunction with a new backing band, cryptically dubbed the Dirty Jicks). Yet he hasn't otherwise changed what he's doing in substantial ways. The music on Stephen Malkmus continues to be rock-based and shaggy, and as usual, his lyrics are subtly surreal, with pop-culture references rubbing up against stream-of-consciousness aphorisms. Consider "Jo Jo's Jacket," in which Malkmus takes on the persona of Yul Brynner, "famous movie star," before launching into seemingly nonsensical declarations ("The house music will blare/And turn your ears into a medicinal jelly") that may not be as silly as they seem at first blush, but you never know.
At times, as on the Ray Davies-esque "Phantasies," which is liberally sprinkled with ooh-oohs, groans and yips, the project threatens to topple into self-indulgent fancy. But Malkmus has been playing this game long enough to know when to leaven the goofiness with substance, and he does so to satisfying effect on "Church on White" ("All you ever wanted was everything/ Plus everything") and the elegiac, culture-shifting "Trojan Curfew" ("Greek gods are communing/Beneath the Doric arch/And they talk how small we humans are"). Furthermore, his throwaways, like the pop orgasm "Troubbble," sport such glorious hooks that carping about superficiality would be bad form.
Still, Malkmus doesn't appear to be trying very hard here, and while true believers are unlikely to complain about that (after all, his persona has always been characterized by a certain amount of laziness), the disc probably won't add many to their number. Stephen Malkmus is generally enjoyable, but it doesn't really raise the creative stakes, and that can be dangerous for a cult hero. He's preaching to the choir, not the whole congregation.
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