Stephen Malkmus does not have a beard. Got it? Malkmus = beardless. And yet the key to Pig Lib‘s deft and complicated beauty is that it’s one mighty hirsute album, progressive-like-the-genre guitar glossolalia updating a rock and roll era its author said good night to in his mid-twenties. On 2001’s lovely Stephen Malkmus, Pavement’s main man pilfered from the druggy British folk-rock he was obsessed with, but that was peach fuzz compared to Pig Lib‘s geezer-growth of aural scruff.
I mean, the album doesn’t fall headfirst into Kraut-psych drum circles or anything, but Malkmus’s developing pastoral fixation has him embracing megastructures almost unthinkable from the man who wrote “Debris Slide.” Take the opener, “Water and a Seat,” jarring to anyone who misses the bubblegum that once stuck to Pavement. After a careful, intricate intro, the song’s rhythmic weight shifts from foot to foot, speeding up and slowing down in oblique prog style: “Hello Hellohello HELLOhello,” he squeaks. And “Witch Mountain Bridge”‘s hypnotic rambles are pure mountain jam. Drummer John Moen and bassist Johanna Bolme wield a tensile strength that lets the lovesick riff-wanker muse and pine in safety; he falls off the bridge, they pull him back on. Take “1% of One,” nearly 10 minutes of reflexive meander meditating on a tech mixing a band that sounds “a bit like the Zephyr/and a bit like the Jicks.”
About the lovesick part: Like his long-acknowledged inspiration Phil Lynott—the scrawny power-trio Celt-core of Thin Lizzy’s first three albums seem firmly imprinted on Pig Lib—Malkmus knows soft rock is where the heart is, and the Jicks lock onto relationship ballads with a smooth clarity Pavement never matched. In true post-irony style, Malkmus saves the suave hooks for the heartfelt tales. On “Vanessa From Queens,” he sells breezy luxuria, finding romance in the details (“And the water dripping from the faucet/like Mardi Gras on the 12th of June”) while unbuttoning chords, massaging licks, and shamelessly mumbling, “I’m gonna show you the time of your life.” The chirpy, mellow “Craw Song” mourns a romantic triangle that can’t survive because one member won’t contemplate “switchin’ his hittin’/ from ladies to men.” “Ramp of Death” ‘s relaxed shuffle sees a Proustian moment in a grapefruit rind. Every tale’s aim is true, a catalog of amorous possibility and WASPish discontent. Even the album’s obtuse moves never seem cultish—Malkmus never loses the plot. This is beard-rock you can kiss without getting your faced scratched.
Which is of course Malkmus’s neatest trick. The man has an uncanny ability to transliterate the sounds only record collectors can hear—early Thin Lizzy, for instance —into a passionate ache anyone can love. He sure did it in Pavement, dressing in Fall colors, finding New Zealand on the edges of Swell Maps, and slipping on Alex Chilton’s puke-stained boogie shoes to orchestrate a college-radio collage that soon proved a distinctive sound ripe for montage by future wankers. A few years back Saint Stephen claimed in Tower Pulse that his favorite albums were the Groundhogs’ Thank Christ for the Bomb and the Dead C.’s Harsh 70s Reality. Well, fine, but it all came out sounding like Can’t Buy a Thrill.
So how did we get from “I’ve got style/ miles and miles” to Jameson’s in the jar-o? Malkmus’s albums follow an odd-even pattern: The odd ones—Slanted and Enchanted, Wowee Zowee, Terror Twilight—are breakthroughs, great leaps forward that show off new skills (Perfecting Indie Rock, Double Album With Filler, and Surviving Nigel Goodrich, respectively). Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Brighten the Corners, and Stephen Malkmus, all released near Valentine’s Day of their respective years, form a trilogy of sorts (Portraits of the Artist as an Aging Tusk Fan). All are open, engaging, tuneful, finding bliss in melodic enthusiasms that tamp down Malkmus’s arch removal and expose his weakness for up-front beauty, moving from innocence (“Range Life”) to experience (“Stereo”) to maturity (“Trojan Curfew”). Pig Lib is an odd, a total Wowee Zowee move, parking what-the-fuck ideas next to expansive ballads and nonsense-with-hooks—as in “(Do Not Feed the) Oysters,” a lovely riff but dippy to spare, or “Dark Wave” ‘s new wave.
Deep listening is suggested because (a) it hangs together nicely, and (b) he buries the leads. Or buries the next acquisition in Malkmus’s skill set—Sex Pleas That Swing—the way he buried his first immortal ballad, “Here,” smack in the middle of Slanted and Enchanted. “Animal Midnight” packs a novel of manners into five minutes—a tense riff speaks to a love stuck in second gear: “Sacrifice for you is just flirtation/Friendship a cold convenience” at the start, and he just gets more upset. “Every single night I try to make you come alive/and you shove it right back in my face.” But check out how the bliss kicks in at 4:01, when a soaring solo and keyboard wash break open the sky.
The album closes with “Us,” as immediate as anything Malkmus has ever done, pairing a pleading come-on with honest-to-Pete groove, something the perennially under-rehearsed Pavement would have found impossible. “I wish we could get our act together/ make some sense of present tense all right,” he croons—simple, direct, economical, adult. “I don’t really know your taste in ceilings/I dunno the RPMs you rev.” This is how Pig Lib finds hearts and minds. It couches romantic discovery in smart songs that have outgrown wiseacre chatter. It extrudes guitar goop that parses emotional verities into whimsies both complex and carnal. It hops over misty mountains to shake for you, girl.