Well, here it is. Two decades after forever cementing his place in the history of rock with Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Stephen Malkmus has finally made the album every fan of his has secretly yearned for. Wig Out At Jag Bags sees him jettisoning all his commitments to irony, hyper-cryptic lyricism and wilfully clumsy song structure, and finally writing a set of songs that show his confessional, earnest side, as well as an uncompromised display of his knack for a moving, tender ballad.
Just kidding, it’s more of the same, which is actually quite a good thing.
All of Malkmus’ solo work, excluding the erratic contortions of Face The Truth, have either been his impression of a jam band, or his idiosyncratic, obtuse take on power-pop and classic rock. Like Mirror Traffic, its predecessor, Wig Out At Jag Bags takes the latter course with a tight, forty minute feast of indie goodness.
Kicking off with the trippy ‘Planetary Motion’, a song that we should have expected a lot earlier given Malkmus’ professed love of sci-fi, the band seem in stellar form, with new drummer Jake Morris comfortably taking over from Janet Weiss behind the kit. Another welcome addition to the group are the featured brass players, described by Malkmus as “a trio of German dads” (which is just an odd enough phrase to qualify as a potential lyric for the album), who make fantastic contributions to the delicate ‘J Smoov’ and the ecstatic, wry ‘Chartjunk’.
The lyrics are typically bizarre and fun to parse and even yield a few results, not something one can assume from a Malkmus record. The irreligious musings of ‘Shibboleth’ sound like an undergrad’s radical theology notes (“Son of the Lord as symbolic death drive”), and the time he’s recently spent living in Portland seem to have culminated in the couplet “Shanghaied in Oregon/ Cinnamon and lesbians”. Whether he’s tackling the vagaries of music fandom on ‘Lariat’ and the hilarious punk send-up/tribute ‘Rumble at the Rainbo’, or briefly doing his best Hal David on ‘Houston Hades’ (“I could see you falling in love/ everyday people need love”), there’s enough to both hum and ruminate on for a considerable time. Even though it all sounds like he just set out to have some fun, Malkmus has managed to make the first great record of the year. It’s a relief to see he’s still the same overachieving slacker we know and love.