After taking the dark, knotty, prog-tinged shred born on “Pig Lib” to a logical, sprawling conclusion on “Real Emotional Trash,” Stephen Malkmus has turned his attention to concise songcraft for his fifth solo release. While there are still welcome samples of the former Pavement frontman’s dexterous-but-sideways lead guitar, the Jicks are clearly focused on serving the songs, with the confidence and swing that marks a veteran working band. Fortunately, Malkmus the songwriter is consistently at the top of his game throughout Mirror Traffic. His confidence and range are immediately clear, as the anthemic opener “Tigers” leads into “No One Is (As I Are Be).” The latter is a wispy and witty beauty whose folky opening gradually gives way to a swirling instrumental section graced by glockenspiel and French horn. “Forever 28,” another standout, is an almost gleeful multidirectional poison pen letter that rolls over a bouncy groove spiked with powerhouse work from drummer Janet Weiss.
Much is made of Malkmus’ knack for graceful chains of abstract and novel wordplay. But what’s often missed is how frequently he injects turns of phrase of startling directness and emotional resonance when and where you least expect them. Someday people will realize that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Not to mention that Malkmus’ sense of humor is often less arch than one might expect.
Mirror Traffic is a vital album and a perfect occasion for lapsed fans to discover that the former “SM” is making some of the best and most personal music of his career. (Matador)