Half a Life . . .


. . . Or maybe it’s “half alive,” or “half a line,” or “half a lie.” It can be hard to tell what Stephen Malkmus is talking about.

It’s not just the low-fidelity mumbling. I’ve often found Pavement lyrics incommunicative, in a way that conveys neither the dazzlingly mercurial consciousness of Malkmus’s (and my) favorite poet, John Ashbery, nor abstract expressionism’s intensities of emotion. Tone of voice tries to maneuver me in the right direction, except SM’s directions are wryly laconic, showily ironic, and ironically laconic with a dash of comic hysteria, mostly in the haircutting song. He’s about as guilty as the next indie boy of Dear Everyone I don’t give a fuck if you understand because I’m just like this, PS Please love me, PPS No actually bug off.

Moreover, Pavement’s finest melodic moment, in “Trigger Cut,” was composed by Jim Croce, and unless you are a hip-hop band, this is a sign of real limitation.

So there’s Pavement’s publicist-proclaimed “musical braintrust,” working within visible triangular horizons of meaning, feeling, and melody. I could spend the rest of my life trying to understand why he’s become a generational voice for a landslide of friends and acquaintances, poets, musicians, lawyers, music critics. But that would be cultural criticism; this is the reviews section.

Stephen Malkmus (he claims that, Little Stevie and the Disciples being taken, he wanted to go with band name the Jicks, but the label wouldn’t let him, which sounds only vaguely like the Matador I know and love. Besides, why not call yourselves the Jicks and then title the record Stephen Malkmus? Wouldn’t that be just so clever?) sounds a lot like Pavement, except with the guitars in tune and a sketchier rhythm section.

It’s also a swell record: personal but easy-going, distinctive, with a lot of picaresque personal narratives occasionally conveyed through exaggerated fantasy elements. That is, it has all the virtues of a really fine Too Short record.

And like a Too Short record, the good songs are similar to the less-good songs (this quality, which sounds suspiciously like “sameness,” actually turns out to be the chief factor in creating “listenability” on full-length CDs). The only clinker is an annoying song about Yul Brynner.

But there are three terrific songs: “Church on White,” “The Hook,” and the ridiculously charming “Jennifer and the Ess-Dog,” which I hoped would actually be about Too Short and Jennifa-oh-Jenny, but is instead the freaky tale of a toe-ringed deb and a burnt cover-bander named Sean: “She’s 18 he’s 31, she’s a rich girl he’s the son [awkward caesura to let rhyme sink in, because these two lovers make an awkward rhyme anyway] of a Coca-Cola middleman.” What’s this, Social Realism? Go figure. And, SocRealist-style, the sweethearts can’t quite hold it together when she goes off to college; it’s the distance thing, their heading in different directions, plus neither cares for Dire Straits, a mutual love of which might have saved them. Then the end: “And off came those awful toe rings, off came those awful toe rings.” There is no moral.

Amid pop music’s occasionally not-that-cynical Fight the Power or Girl Power or Power to the People Right On, indie for the most part holds to the communitarian virtue of not dividing performer and audience into preacher and flock. There are ethics (community, aesthetic autonomy, anti-glamour, dancing poorly) but not much moralizing: I can glean some personal positions from, say, Exile in Guyville‘s tell-it-like-it-is verve, but the welter of pointed idiosyncrasy makes it clear it’s just Liz’s story. She’s not saying you should fuck and run or anything.

The same willful inwardness drives Stephen Malkmus, albeit with less blue bravado and more Turkish pirates. “The Hook” takes a muted retro-riff worthy of the Ess-Dog’s cover band (is that “Just One Look”? Whatever, man), except in this case the shaggy dogs are salty dogs. It’s good ol’ story-rapping: “At 19 I was . . . , by 25 I was . . . , by 31 . . . , etc.” Kidnapped by Mediterranean thugs, he ascends from mascot to brother in arms (“My art was the knife”) to galleon captain, terrorizing the coast of Montenegro.

Hello? Coming-of-age story? For those of you scoring at home, Stephen’s 19 was the Hüsker-Düriffic 1985, a pivotal year for indie rock; at 25 he joined the gang with Slanted and Enchanted; at 31 he made Brighten the Corners, an apex at least in the technical sense—from there, it was decline and fall. One can only imagine the terror caused by “Starlings of the Slipstream” along the coast of Montenegro. But if “The Hook” is a kind of romanticized memoir, half a lie and half a life, it ends stripped of decoration: “We had no wooden legs or steel hooks, we had no black eyepatches or a starving cook. We were just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor.” Then he repeats the last line and gets out. As you might have guessed, there is no moral.

Rock moralizing tends to settle its fat ass in the chorus: the moment of asserting power, of making big points and giving marching orders. C’mon people now, smile on your brother! I was . . . Born in the USA! If you wannabe my lover, you’ve gotta get with my friends!

Indie, uncoincidentally, acts like choruses might have rabies or herpes or cooties. The songs, instead of returning to the same soapbox every 45 seconds, would rather amble from Alaska to Japan to Sarasota, as Malkmus does along the spongy and sweet melodic route of “Phantasies.” In indie utopia, a good distance from the big rock chorus mountain, across the river from boogie wonderland, everyone would be walking around bemused and bespectacled, and there would be no will-to-power rangers.

A form of this fantasy makes plenty o’ indie mediocre: apathy disguised as a social program. Other times it takes the form of the infuriatingly absurd: the Affect of No Affect, wherein some Lou Barlow type acts like songs aren’t stylized performances at all, he just happens to be singing right now and hey, that guitar fell into his hands by accident. But sometimes, the whole deal seems legitimately humble.

Humility goeth before some funny history. Handed rock’s center stage by Kurt’s death and Guyville‘s breakthrough (her producer Brad Wood: “There’s no chicks in Pavement. That had a lot to do with it”), indie stumbled out of the spotlight like a librarian leaving a frat party. It was the strange spectacle of young ironists meeting an irony 20 times their size—Pavement had the strange timing to be poster children for a movement that didn’t want everything, and got it. Suddenly they couldn’t win for winning.

The appeal of Stephen Malkmus is how eloquently, in the midst of other stories, it sings the ambivalence of moments lost, failed, evaded. “Church on White,” an elegy for a friend, offers also an unresolved account of indie itself. Extremely pretty, ambitiously sentimental, and with a stumbling chorus to boot, it bears the terrors of the living. “Promise me you will always be too awake to be famous, too wired to be safe,” he asks.

It’s a hopeless request to make of a dead man, but of course it glints also with the mirror flash of self-reflection. Elegies are the saddest form of talking to yourself. “Carry on, it’s a marathon, take me off the list, I don’t want to be missed.” The gap between what it means to be the self-negating sort in life, and to have literally negated yourself, yawns here; here fatality enters. The chorus begins “All you really wanted was everything plus everything.” How Not Indie. And rather than renouncing that position, Malkmus apologizes for his own reticence: “And the truth I only poured you half a lie.” Or something.