Weird, real, emotional: traveling the years with Stephen Malkmus and Pig Lib
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
It’s very easy to get pulled into the “how did I get here?” game with any insignificant thing. It’s the inevitable and unpredictable march of time, and none of it can really make sense lined up on a chart pointing from A to B. And yet.
And yet there I am, sitting on an Amtrak train with my headphones on, face in a book, working as diligently as I could to blend in with the grey backgrounds of a moving vehicle, when it hits me that I was still listening to Stephen Malkmus give me the most bizarre history lesson:
“In better times, a spell could save you.”
So it goes listening to Pig Lib, Malkmus’ second album after leaving Pavement and one of those albums that I absolutely must have on hand at any given moment, because I might need it at just one of those moments.
After hearing the first single from Malkmus’ soon-to-be-released weirdo electronic album recently — and honestly, good for him for keeping it weird — I naturally went back to last year’s Sparkle Hard, hopped around a few solo albums, then back to his earliest stuff after Pavement’s demise. His self-titled record is still a classic — hailed as such on arrival, and that praise was not unwarranted — but it was Pig Lib that grabbed me again.
Pig Lib, the first record to be co-billed with his supporting Jicks and indeed barely featured any of their names on the cover, was the first of his albums that I bought with any kind of anticipation. I’d read about his Stephen Malkmus debut after its 2001 release, and from there discovered Pavement on reverse. So it was news of Pig Lib’s arrival that had me driving to an out-of-the-way CD shop a couple of towns over to pick it up. I’d apparently missed out on a two-disc version of the record, but whatever. The finish product that I put in my car and listened to as I drove the back roads back home stuck in my brain immediately. I didn’t necessarily understand what I was listening to, but I knew I wanted to keep listening.
One of the aspects of this record that is endlessly fascinating is that I have no idea what any of these songs are about. That’s the case with almost all his stuff, but certain lines stand out here:
“Bob Packwood wants to suck your toes.”
“Your daddy’s Portuguese / well Jesus quelle surprise!”
“You to me is like carbon dioxide.”
“He couldn’t commit to the mental jujitsu of switching his hitting.”
“I don’t really know your taste in ceilings.”
“They’ll suck you like a seagull into the sound.”
It was the antithesis of the heavier singer-songwriter stuff that lined my CD shelves. Here was nothing that was going to make me curl into the fetal position lamenting my romantic follies. And simultaneously, none of this was dumb. This was not the latter-day Aerosmith that I listened to in high school. It was both high- and low-brow, funny and serious, weird and seriously weird. It gave me something to hang onto that didn’t numb my senses, but merely diverted them.
But more than the disjointed lyrics, the guitars on this album are what sucked me in originally and keep me interested all these years later. At a time when I did not want or need another guitar hero — another tortured face racing up and down the fretboard in an effort to demonstrate that he and he alone could play the most difficult solo ever — Malkmus was a revelation. Here, then, the idea of the angular guitar was taken to its extreme, and the solos and even the song construction were just head-scratching in the best way possible. Everything just sounded weird, yet they were coming out of a Fender Jaguar that anyone with the finances could buy.
The solo on “Witch Mountain Bridge,” in particular, is a piece of music that I catch myself thinking about at least once a week, even if I’m not listening to his music. The idea of the long, repetitive solo that’s shorter on technical prowess and longer on repetition isn’t necessarily new (check out so many of Neil Young’s best instrumental workouts), but the way it was deployed here in this time, when iTunes was already threatening the attention spans of listeners and the idea of the album as a whole greater than the sum of its individual parts, still gives me shivers. The song begins with Malkmus matching his words with the notes on the fretboard, and then for minutes slowly sucks listeners into a slow spiral of notes and bends, drawing in ears as the music circles a drain and flows through the pipes into god-knows-where. The instrumental section builds and falls apart so many times it’s hard to keep track of all its sidebars and seeming non sequiturs. And yet, it doesn’t just work, it makes sense.
In this way, I’ve done nothing constructive to explain what “Witch Mountain Bridge” sounds like other than to say it spins around in my head and pops out as confusing as it entered. But that’s something I was looking for, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. And it’s something I’m still looking for. For all the greatness of Malkmus’ body of work — the entirety of his Pavement and solo catalogs, his prowess and energy live — it’s this album that I’m always drawn back toward.
I don’t know if this is the pillar in his body of work, but consensus can’t and shouldn’t mean too much to individual taste and preference. At a point in time when I was really looking, I found a record I needed and leaned on, and as the years roll by, I continue to lean on the same 11 songs when necessary. For that, he can go into all the strange electronica side paths he desires. I’ll listen to all of it intently and excitedly, if only for the possibility that he might have recorded something else that registers as deeply as this.
Jan. 27, 2019
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org