Can Pavement's Stephen Malkmus Hold His Own Against His Former Band's Ever-Expanding Legacy? | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Can Pavement's Stephen Malkmus Hold His Own Against His Former Band's Ever-Expanding Legacy? 

An oft-quoted Pavement lyric, the line "Show me a word that rhymes with Pavement," comes from "Harness Your Hopes," a jaunty fan favorite laced with frontman Stephen Malkmus's sharpest wordplay. Of course it's a B-side—an illustration of the reputation the band has developed as a flexing opportunity for fans, usually men, to prove themselves and gauge the merit of others. When my friend and eventual podcast co-host tweeted "some call it '90s revival, I call it the Pavement Enslavement," he had no idea he'd accepted a proposal from Malkmus, a man with whom he was otherwise unfamiliar. He thought he was making a topical joke about a band that's become emblematic of a particular sound and time.

All sides are guilty of this compartmentalization—not only of Pavement but also of Malkmus himself. Because his band has been canonized as the standard for nineties indie rock, he could seem like a relic whose output after the band's dissolution in 1999 is auxiliary, a side project despite there being no bigger active band. Apart from Malkmus's 2001 self-titled debut (which could easily be folded into Pavement's discography), Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks have largely seemed set on carving out their own lane and proving themselves against a legacy that still hasn't plateaued.

They've done an admirable job at just that, zigzagging from release to release among proggy extended jams, playful experimentation with synthesizers, and seventies guitar rock theatricality, all hinted as tendencies for Malkmus with Pavement, but never fully explored. Despite a rotating drummer position, including a stint from Quasi and Sleater-Kinney's Janet Weiss for 2008's Real Emotional Trash, the lineup has remained the same since the Jicks' debut in 2001. It's hard to argue, nostalgic bias for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain aside, that Malkmus hasn't expanded his sound and craft over the course of his post-Pavement career.

So why, if it's been a source of growth and fulfillment for their hero, have many of the most devoted Malkmus fans still been hesitant to consider the Jicks material as anything more than an afterthought? As most of the press around their latest album, May's Sparkle Hard, has been swift to note, the Jicks have already outlived Pavement. The same pieces also frequently cite that it's been four years since the Jicks' last album, the longest stretch ever between releases for Malkmus.

It's easy to overlook the significance of an artist that's still quickly evolving, but the Jicks seem to have finally locked into a groove, indicating a remarkable self-awareness on Malkmus's behalf of the space he occupies in rock music. Sparkle Hard feels like a greatest hits record, culling the highlights of the last six albums into a satisfying reminder of what the band has consistently delivered, while still leaving room for some novelty, including Auto-Tune and some of Malkmus's most pointed social commentary to date.

Beyond music though, Malkmus has spent the years between records settling into a position as a cultural figure, and he's done so with almost startling acuity. He's become more active on Twitter, engaging with current events and mocking his own legacy, making it hard to hate him even if you've shrugged off his music. He's not only in on the joke, he's usually ahead of it.

When my friend and I launched a podcast called The Pavement Enslavement years after his tweet, the concept was that I would be convinced that Pavement was a bad band by someone who knew nothing about them. That didn't happen, and after a deep dive into their discography and eventually the Jicks, our best conversations came from our shared fascination with Malkmus—his interests, opinions, and whatever else informed his career trajectory. This even translated into fandom for my skeptic cohost.

The press cycle for Sparkle Hard was crammed with uncanny coincidences for us. It felt like Malkmus was making jokes about himself that we had riffed on in the podcast. Specific things, like whether he's a gamer (the lyrics in Brighten the Corners suggest yes), that are outlandish to project onto someone of his stature. Yet somehow, he recognized and played along with our whims.

Perhaps that's why lines like "Come from the underground/Throw me right back where I belong" in Sparkle Hard's "Shiggy" come off as pleasantly self-aware instead of smugly romanticizing a legacy. Malkmus recognizes his position: more esteemed than most, though he acknowledges that there are still old guards boxing him out of "legend" status. He does so with a prescience that reinforces that place, allowing for a later-era high mark like Sparkle Hard and making him an evergreen source of lighthearted parody for, say, a comedy podcast. There are a few words that rhyme with Pavement, but Malkmus himself prompted the joke and nipped in the bud the notion that the punchline could ever really be true, for him or his fans.

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