WHEN WORD GOT OUT that Stephen Malkmus had recorded his fifth solo album, Mirror Traffic, with older brother-in-arms Beck Hansen, Pavement fans were thrilled. Malkmus had rarely worked alongside producers in the past—and with good reason, considering Nigel Godrich’s candy coating of Terror Twilight—but a match like this could signal a return to Malkmus’ glory days. Recorded before the successful reunion of Pavement, Mirror Traffic resurrects the reckless and cool spirit of ’90s Malk, sounding like the loosey-goosey slacker album Pavement junkies have long been pining for.
Mirror Traffic kicks off with pub-rocker “Tigers” and we’re immediately in familiar territory; effortlessly oblique turns of phrase and loping guitar lines stitch up into an absurdly spastic coda that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Wowee Zowee. On hyperactive lead single “Senator,” the band gallops with gusto as Malkmus sardonically blurts out, “I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blowjob,” a line that will surely dwell within your heart forever. Malkmus and the Jicks sound spry and poised throughout, having pared the excess jams of 2008’s Real Emotional Trash in favor of a more direct approach. The band is clearly having fun here, especially on stunted punk-rocker “Tune Grief,” in which Malkmus breaks into a full-blown Johnny Rotten impression at the song’s halfway point. The songs of Mirror Traffic benefit from Beck’s production, many of which feature lap steel and brass arrangements; even a harmonica makes an appearance on wistful folk tune “No One Is (As I Are Be).” Penniless alt-folk tune “Long Hard Book” is the closest thing to country that Malkmus has done since “Father to a Sister of Thought,” and the baroque pop melodies of “Fall Away” are beautifully understated with hushed harmonies throughout.
Mirror Traffic’s 15 songs use Malkmus’ earlier work with Pavement as touchstones, but as a whole the album is an extension of his best work with the Jicks and an indicator of a restless and maturing songwriter confidently expanding his repertoire into the uncharted fringes of slacker pop. Whether it sounds like Pavement or not, it’s the record we hoped he would make—expectedly unexpected, and delightful.