Iconic indie artist writes legendary lyrics

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(Photo courtesy of Matador Records).

After a successful reunion tour with his former band, Pavement, Stephen Malkmus recorded last year’s Mirror Traffic with his current band The Jicks, the latest in a string of successful solo outings for the veteran songwriter. Even with the shadow of Pavement looming large, Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks have earned a reputation for crafting tastefully off-kilter pop music and putting on a riveting live show.

As exhilarating as it can be to hear Malkmus exercise his formidable guitar chops, his lyrics have a history of stealing the show. The excellent lyrics of Mirror Traffic reveal a sharpening of focus for Malkmus, whose imagery flirts with the bizarre without quite reaching the point of opacity.

Try wrapping your mind around the opening lines of “Senator,” the album’s lead single: “The toxins, American-made/Weapons-class gray sludge for migrants/Dioxin the chemical sunset/The number one subset of all.” The world may never know what it means to be “the number one subset of all,” but who cares? With drummer Janet Weiss’s pummeling drum fills behind him, Malkmus is able to sneak in a few lines that sound better than they look on a lyric sheet without bringing down the songs, which he has come to see as primarily important this time around.

In an interview with Pitchfork Media last August, Malkmus described his changing goals as a bandleader: “Maybe all of our personalities might not come out as much on our instruments, but the songs are going to live more. That’s what will really last.” Fans of Malkmus’s recent song-centric output will be pleased to learn that The Jicks’ live shows as of late have drawn heavily from Mirror Traffic.

But that’s not to say that Malkmus and company won’t be including any surprises in tonight’s show at The Mohawk. After a Jicks gig in early October, Consequence of Sound reported that the band had closed its set with a “slightly ominous, warped version of ‘Bennie and the Jets,’” the Elton John/Bernie Taupin classic, an unexpected cover choice if there ever were one.

A night with Malkmus is guaranteed to be a night of pop-music paradox. As you purchase your ticket, begin mentally preparing yourself, as you will soon be watching the only guy alive with enough indie cred to pay off the national debt indulge in the forbidden fruit of classic rock, whether it is in the form of quasi-epic guitar noodling or accessible song structures.

And perhaps it is due to the inspiration of classic acts like The Beatles and Elton John that the 45 year-old Malkmus has begun abstaining from indie guitar heroics for the sake of his songwriting. “Like, people talk about Paul McCartney’s incredible bass-playing,” Malkmus told Pitchfork. “But he’s in stadiums because of his songs.”

Printed on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 as: Indie artist's songwriting impresses