One of the most intelligent, influential and infuriatingly inconsistent indie bands of the '90s, Pavement's every musical move was dissected and analyzed to death by critics and fanboys alike. The same fate will surely befall their former leader's solo debut, so, before we start in on the album's merits and faults, let's just get the broadest Pavement comparison out of the way. At the risk of damning it with faint praise, Stephen Malkmus is the best album Malkmus has made since Wowee Zowee. The first track, "Black Book," is a midtempo, harder-rocking song that finds the assembled musicians acting more like a band than Pavement ever did on record, sounding loose but still interested in what's going on. Although Malkmus breaks no new ground on the song, it makes for a good album-opener, reassuring the frightened listener that Malkmus hasn't gone unlistenably mellow or unlistenably self-indulgent. "Black Book" and the prealbum single "Discretion Grove" are the most obviously Pavementish songs on the album, but with Malkmus' vocals, songwriting and guitar playing having been the most distinguishing signifiers of Pavement's sound, the similarities will, of course, outweigh the differences.
There are differences, though, both musically and lyrically, some of which work out better than others. Possibly as a counter to Pavement's often inscrutable lyrics, several of the album's tracks are straight-ahead story songs. The Thin Lizzy-ish "The Hook" is an amusing pirate tale (really) delivered with a straight face; Malkmus sings about being the first one up the lanyard during raids and working his way up to "captain of a galleon/I was Poseidon's new son" without smirking or breaking character. Unfortunately, "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog" is a far-too-smirky tale of a college student dating an aging musician. Even taken as ironic self-parody, it's the kind of song Steely Dan delivered much more convincingly 30 years ago.
Elsewhere, Malkmus seems almost perversely obsessed with screwing up wonderful songs. "Jo Jo's Jacket" has an amazingly catchy "whoo-whoo" chorus coupled with amazingly dumb lyrics (OK, the verse about Yul Brynner is actually pretty great), and the vibraphone-and-handclap-driven "Phantasies" is prevented from being a perfect pop song by some moron's being allowed to yelp in the background during the first verse (maybe Malkmus missed Pavement comic relief Bob Nastanovich). These missteps are that much more frustrating bcause Stephen Malkmus is almost a great album. It's lively and unpredictable and downright beautiful at times. Were it a debut album by a new talent, it would surely spark the kind of frenzy that accompanied the first few Pavement records. Is it a perfect album, though? Hardly. Is it Malkmus' best work? No, but, amazingly, it gives every indication that his best work is still ahead of him, and that's quite a bit more than any diehard Pavement fan could have hoped for.