ALBUM: Wig Out at Jagbags
ARTIST: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
On “Lariat,” the single from the Jicks’ latest album, Stephen Malkmus sings on the bridge to the chorus: “You’re not what you aren’t / You aren’t what you’re not,” and as with any tautology, there is that well duh moment (see Gertrude Stein’s invocation of the law of identity: “A rose is a rose is a rose”). Malkmus, though, through the power of antimetabole, the convolution of contractions, and consonant end-stops, reminds us of how opaquely we present ourselves to others, how identity can be a counterintuitive enterprise. If you dilate the contractions (“You are not what you are not”), it is a perfectly parallel double-negative, which in turn, makes it a double entendre (see Donald Rumsfeld’s “There are things we don’t know we don’t know”). Ponder Malkmus’ poetry at your own peril. Hazard his allusions on a day when the Google gods are in your favor. These are the rhetorical wormholes and abstruse proper nouns that will eat away at your precious time.
Wig Out at Jagbags (Matador 2014) is yet another post-Pavement identity crisis, and it feels just as good as it did with his last five releases under his solonym. The Jicks run the genre gamut from prog rock to alt-country to post-punk to jam rock to blues rock, and rarely does a single track settle into a discrete bin. This has become the Jicks’ niche; whereas the designation “alternative” once referred to the heterogeneity implicit in independent music, many indie labels have succumbed to de-marginalizing their most nourishable underdogs. It seems appropriate that Malkmus, one of alternative music’s darling usual suspects since Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted (1992), continues to redefine the genre by preserving the heterogeneity. Sometimes, it’s transcendental; other times, it just sounds fussy. Either way, his integrity obliges him to be stubbornly “alternative.” Many reviewers are keen to point out that this album marks the pivotal moment for Malkmus in which he has written more albums for the Jicks than he has for Pavement. He has earned the bittersweet retrospection in “Rumble at the Rainbo” (“No one here has changed / and no one ever will”) and the sentimentality in “Lariat” (“We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever / I’m talking ‘bout the A-D-D’s”).
Malkmus remains the reigning poet laureate of the genre. His whimsically consonant and assonant lyrics are loaded with double entendre, innuendo, pun, metaphor, satire, sardonicism, and irony. Some of the songs’ far-flung allusions feel like an erudite hipster’s Pinterest curation (on “Lariat,” venison, Tennyson, and Grateful Dead are separated by a few scant articles). Before you go smacking your head, though: as always, the Malkmus punch line façade wears off after the first few listens, and universal truths threaten to buoy in the most unlikely of places: “Love is Hades for all you Slim Shadys.” Isn’t it so? On most songs, the lyrics are delivered with a keyless world-weary monotone and the occasional Prozac-induced bellow. Occasionally, you’ll hear a pun that was never there due to the latter inflection. Ever the virtuosic lyricist, Malkmus’ lead guitar also delivers classic rock solos with high-fret play, bridges with jam band reverb, and cosmic noodling.
At its best, Wig Out is a finessed fusion, a big album on a tight schedule of just forty-five minutes. On it, you can hear the Jicks amalgamate the likes of The Allman Brothers, Primus, and Weezer with occasional forays into mock protopunk and snotty Fat Wreck jiffies. After defusing for a bit in the middle, it hits its stride again for tracks 8, 9, and 11 (“Chartjunk,” “Independence Street,” and “Cinnamon and Lesbians”). Embedded somewhere within these three songs—I’m convinced—is the genome for what a Jick actually is. Other songs seem to merely satisfy the arc of the palette, to pay proportionate attention to their progressive chops and to modulate on command as with the soft rock track “J Smoov.”
In songs such as “Shibboleth,” it sounds as if Malkmus is sleepy; the only enthusiasm in his recorded voice is from the general relief of reaching the end of a verse. He averts disaster on several tracks by cutting them way short (see “Scattegories”). However, the rock-operatic “Surreal Teenagers” is so misplaced and meandering at the end of the album, it feels like it must have made some backroom deal with the guillotine. It’s no “Pinball Wizard.” It’s not even up to snuff with the material from The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love. It exists to baffle at the end of an otherwise cogent album; it humanizes Malkmus for including such an inchoate demo, but humanizing or not, the album suffers because of its inclusion.
Of all the references (and there are many to choose from: see “Shanghaied in Oregon,” “Condoleezza’s Rice,” “Mott the Hoople’s got no scruples,” “dropping dimes… dipsy-doo… and the D-league in Wichita”), one is worth dilating. The “ramblin’ wreck” from “Lariat” is not just alliterative self-deprecation. Rather, it comes from the Georgia Tech fight song: “I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech / and a hell of an engineer / a helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.” The double entendre recasts the songs on Wig Out as fight songs; it paves the way for a faux-timorous Malkmus to once again claim his indie throne. Not only is he one helluva an alt music engineer, he is a 47-year-old one at that. Good to know that while pushing a half-century, Malkmus has fight, has endurance. He is not entirely delirious, not yet completely wigged out.
“You’re not what you aren’t / You aren’t what you’re not”