It’s been four years since Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks last put out an album, but Sparkle Hard is well worth that wait.
Nearly 30 years into his prolific career, Malkmus shows that he still has the chops to perfectly mix offbeat lyrics with upbeat guitar melodies as he did when he led Pavement in the 1990s.
On first listen, Sparkle Hard feels like trying to wade through the thoughts of someone much smarter than you – and arguably, Malkmus might be – but with each replay, the threads link together and it all becomes much more clear: this is a killer album.
While previous Jicks albums have ducked in and out of more experimental phases, Sparkle Hard gets back to more familiar territory. That’s not to say that this album lacks imagination; more than once I found myself recalling elements from bands like Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem, Bon Iver, The Black Keys, David Bowie, The Beatles, Phish… not to mention Sparkle Hard’s forays into country and pseudo-funk, among other genres. It’s an eclectic mixture that you might expect to sound messy, but it never does, surely thanks to producer Chris Funk (of The Decemberists fame) and his ability to mold each song into something familiar to fans, yet still unique despite their approachability.
The album starts with the piano driven “Cast Off” that slowly builds into wailing guitars, feeling almost like an heir to “Hey Jude” if recorded by Rockin’ the Suburbs-era Ben Folds, just a little less precious. It’s arguably my favorite song on the album, second to “Middle America,” Sparkle Hard’s single, which despite being in Malkmus’ wheelhouse (one could easily imagine this song existing on a Pavement album), manages to feel completely fresh. “Middle America” also includes one of my favorite lines of the album, “may you be shitfaced the day you die,” delivered so sweetly by Malkmus that it almost sounds like a complement.
The album veers into uncharacteristically political territory with “Bike Lane,” a chugging, guitar-driven, melodically upbeat song that had me grooving until it’s jarring introduction of the verses focused entirely on the 2015 murder of Freddie Gray. It’s a stark contrast to the repetitive, seemingly meaningless chorus (“another beautiful bike lane”), but perhaps that is the point. This dichotomy is also apparent in the lyrics, juxtaposing Gray’s horrifying death (“his life expectancy was max 25”) with what Malkmus portrays as the unsympathetic and mundane storyline of the police officers (“poor cops, they’re so busy… and now they got an audience, kick off your jackboots, it’s time to unwind”).
“Rattler” is another song that stands out, rhythmic and featuring Malkmus’ voice fully autotuned. The autotune completely works, somehow. It manages to feel not just intentional, but necessary, rather than the lazy production decision it so often is in a lot of mainstream pop music. But of course this is the case – Stephen Malkmus’ music is rarely anything but well thought out.
Other highlights of the album are the garage band-sounding “Shiggy;” the softer “Solid Silk” with its beautiful, airy string part; and the country-esque “Refute,” featuring none other than Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth doing her damnedest to put on the twang that the song demands.
Overall, Sparkle Hard lives up to its name. The ingenuity of the songs coupled with familiar, vibrant guitars, and Malkmus’ ability to turn even the nonsensical into something compelling, prove with every listen that Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks continues to have staying power – as if we even needed convincing.