If someone had suggested to me back in January that a new Stephen Malkmus record would end up being one of my favourite albums of 2011, I would probably have thought they were either a particularly optimistic street-teamer or simply delusional. It isn’t that Malkmus’ work with the Jicks hasn’t been uniformly excellent; it’s just that over the last decade it has become just a bit too familiar, like the comfy dressing gown you slip on every day without ever really thinking about. Yet here we are, a little over half-way through the year, and I’m listening for what must be the tenth time in a week to Mirror Traffic – Malkmus’ fifth post-Pavement long-player – and finding that I already know a great many of the words off by heart. And as anyone with a passing interest in the past twenty years of alternative music history will attest, that is no mean feat. As always, Malkmus’ lyrics are at once integral and completely irrelevant; sure, I guess “Senator”, with its fellatio-centric hook, could be some sort of wry political comment, but it’s far more likely that the singer simply found amusement in the way the words hang together. Similarly, couplets like “There’s been some soft grass grown between us/ when they talk about bad blood they don’t mean us” and song titles like “Stick Figures In Love” exemplify Malkmus’ affectionate mastery of the English language, conjuring up more magical imagery with a handful of words than many writers manage in a novel. Musically, the Jicks compliment their leader better than ever, especially on slower jams like “Long Hard Book” and “Share The Red”, whilst the front-man’s own lead guitar work – indebted equally as ever to the Groundhogs’ Tony McPhee and Can’s Michael Karoli – thrills throughout. Fellow slacker icon Beck adds a few interesting production touches, but there’s no doubt as to who’s running the show; Mirror Traffic is Malkmus back at his very best, making excellence sound effortless.
Mirror Traffic is out August 22 on Domino Records