Stephen Malkmus’ self-titled 2001 solo debut was a welcome reminder that the former Pavement frontman could be fleet, hooky, and fun. But in the three LPs that followed, Malkmus disappeared further and further into his amateur prog-rock guitar-god side. The albums were still fundamentally enjoyable, with a handful of strong songs each, but they showed Malkmus increasingly following the path of the talented hobbyist, not of a man who helped define and elevate indie-rock in the ‘90s. Mirror Traffic is Malkmus’ fifth record with his backing band The Jicks, and feels more like a real album than anything he’s done since ‘01. Mirror Traffic was co-produced by fellow alt-rock icon Beck, who works with Malkmus to expand his arrangements a little and to embrace his laconic West Coast pop side on songs like the horn-enhanced acoustic ballad “No One Is (As I Are Be)” and the buzzy, echoing “Stick Figures In Love.” Malkmus hasn’t sounded this engaged and willing to entertain in a decade.
Yet the end result is another Jicks record with only a few standout tracks floating in a soup of nice-but-unmemorable guitar solos and not-so-cunning non-sequiturs. Mirror Traffic contains one of the most cringe-inducing songs of Malkmus’ career in “Senator,” a semi-tongue-in-cheek power-popper about how—like all of us—politicians only want “a blowjob.” And the album contains multiple slight, slack rockers like “Tigers” and “All Over Gently,” which sound like the work of one of the myriad Pavement imitators who emerged in the mid-’90s.
The major advantage that Mirror Traffic has over its predecessors—beyond the swifter tempos and fuller sound—is that it’s longer, which means that even though its percentage of keepers is about the same, the overall number ticks up. But as a lunge at restoring Malkmus’ rock ‘n’ roll relevance in the 2010s, the album falls short. It’ll remind longtime followers of the good ol’ days, but it’ll also likely send those fans scrambling back to when Malkmus’ songs were as catchy as his sound.