For the past three decades, Stephen Malkmus has approached his music career with a sort of oblique nonchalance, whether he’s fronting ’90s indie giants Pavement or piloting a solo-ish career with his band the Jicks. In a world where so many artists must hustle to make something of their art, Malkmus keeps getting dragged back in, somewhat reluctantly, by the music and the expectations of him as an underground icon.
That said, there’s a different vibe on Sparkle Hard, the album Malkmus released via longtime label Matador Records in May. Like its predecessors in the Jicks catalog, it’s packed to the gills with off-kilter rock of the pop, psych, and prog variety, complete with squiggly guitar solos, weird rhythmic shifts, cavernous riffs, and offhand dogma. Malkmus seems deeply invested and connected to this material, and his band sounds punchier than it has in years. Songs like the sludgy “Bike Lane,” the labyrinthine “Kite,” and the positively slanted (and enchanting) “Brethren” belong right up there among the Jicks’ best tunes. And the closing track, “Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels,” is a killer collision of endlessly unfurling guitars and buzzed-out stoner disco, spanning both of Malkmus’ more traditional and experimental proclivities.
In the end, Sparkle Hard is the best Jicks album since at least 2011’s Mirror Traffic, and maybe even 2003’s Pig Lib. “Try me out,” Malkmus sings through Auto-Tune in “Rattler” as doomy synth pulses behind him, “just for kicks.” It’s hard to imagine many people trying out Stephen Malkmus’ music for the first time in 2018. But those who do will find a man—and a band—at the top of their game.