Stephen Malkmus has always been a smartass. He”s always been a romantic, too. The yoking of those opposites and a few other choice contradictions as well were what made his early work with Pavement so incendiary: Both lucid and sardonic, pop and anti-pop, he had an armload of hooks and an armload of real feelings and enough rock “n roll swagger to make all of it sing.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of W.W. Norton

As Malkmus grew older, his slacker quixoticism evaporated. By 1997″s Brighten the Corners, he wasn”t on a counterculturalist mission anymore he was just, you know, doing his mildly-derisive thing. The hooks were still there, sure, but the edge-of-your-seat thrills had been replaced by tunes that seemed to favor private romanticism (love me because I”m so sly, baby, and because the world sucks, by the way) over making cultural fragmentation romantic.

That gentle nosedive into complacency made it easy for Malkmus to slide gracefully into his thirties. And since no one”s expecting him to save the alt-rock world anymore, it”s also made it easy for him to slide into a solo career.

Lou Reed to whom Malkmus can be compared in several respects scored his first hit only after he left the Velvets, but it”s doubtful the same thing will happen for Malkmus. On his eponymous solo debut, his songs still slant toward fuzziness, his lyrics are full of smartass-isms or non-sequiturs and delivered in that same whispery, off-key sing-speak.

Which isn”t to say that the tunes aren”t catchy. They are there”s even one called “The Hook.” It”s about S.M. hanging out with pirates. Whether or not that scenario happens to be an extended metaphor for growing old as an alt-rock icon (or something), you might smell schtick. I certainly do.

At least two of these 12 tunes are merely okay and probably wouldn”t have made the cut were they recorded for a Pavement record. What”s worse is that he”s capitulated to slackerdom in a way he was oft accused of (but didn”t) while with Pavement. That band offered both cheap thrills and a sense of overarching purpose behind all of the tunefulness. Stephen Malkmus is a little light on the latter.

That said, it”s a fine piece of work, one that proves Malkmus could still out-write most of his contemporaries with his Stratocaster tied behind his back. Malkmus the smartass hasn”t quite killed off Malkmus the romantic, and a couple of these songs (especially lilting ballad “Church on White” and the resplendent “Trojan Curfew”) are shot through with genuine sensitivity and some drop-dead gorgeous melodies to boot.

His sense of humor is less Thomas Pynchon and more Merry Prankster than before. Where his love of irony led him to survey the fringes of alt-culture on Crooked Rain, pitching vitriol at old hacks and young imitators, here he”s just happy to sing about whichever jokers he saw on PBS or read about in last week”s New Yorker (Yul Brynner, Trojans, Eskimos, a hippie couple with a dog named Trey).

In short, he”s having more fun than ever, and I hate him for it. Which makes me wonder why I can”t get these songs out of my head.

Grade: A-

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