Stephen Malkmus Ventures Far out and Steers Back to Center on Vaguely Electronic ‘Groove Denied’
It’s a little known fact that indie icon Stephen Malkmus, who pioneered a particularly Southern strain of the off-kilter alt rock aesthetic with the legendary Pavement, once lived in Berlin, and became immersed in the city’s techno scene. Ever the prolific artist, he looks to have naturally exhausted his means of expression, and dug deep for inspiration on his latest record “Groove Denied.” The album is at once a bold departure, with synth pop-derived experiments, and a reaffirmation of everything that Malkmus is admired for.
From the onset, this is wild stuff, with Malkmus stepping into his most unabashedly outre form. Since the Pavement days, he has always entertained experimental leanings, but they’ve often been subtle — an odd number of repetitions here, an outlandish howl there. He’s generally been a musician whose stylistic outings have come more in the form of a casual disregard for convention than a blatant courting of all things weird. From the first minute of opener “Belziger Faceplant,” however, it’s clear that he’s largely taken up a different tune for this release. It’s actually a bit like an artist like Dirty Projectors, in their earliest days, before madcap avant tendencies gave way to relative stabilizing selection, except adjusted for a more decidedly indie rock format. We’re talking polyrhythmic instrumentation, droney, glitched-out, unstructured vocal interjections, and all the works. The song soon takes a more recognizable shape, and becomes something of a jam, but it’s the sound of swinging to sirens, with noises that resemble swiveling doors, and an overall raucous, carefree festival character.
For “A Bit Wilder,” Malkmus builds on the momentum of the preceding track, and falls into a natural groove with a trancelike, rounded-off bassline, plenty whimsical wheezing sounds and noisy guitar tomfoolery. Moments of sculpted feedback are particularly exhilarating, evoking the same feel as songs like “The National Anthem” by Radiohead, whose members are avowed devotees of Malkmus. As if in a meta reference to his recent musical outlandishness, Malkmus sings, “These are my imaginary notes.” “Viktor Borgia” takes a twee turn, sounding a bit like synth pop channeled by live musicians with vaguely prog proclivities. Charmingly childish, seemingly offhand lyrics like “A tickle fancy / For paper Nancy” and “Your eyes are like a present / From a peasant” have a very Syd Barrett ring to them. “Come Get Me” showcases a slew of Malkmus staples — laidback, readymade singalongs, indulgent guitar work steeped in Southern rock traditions. Some Eastern-tinged twang adds a British invasion-era spin to the sound.
“Forget Your Place” finds Malkmus ostensibly pitched-down over a trippy, hypnotic backdrop. It’s an outsider, meditative number much in the tradition of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” At the very end, a skittering beat takes over, completely out of the blue, giving the feel of eccentric mixtapes, and a liberating stream-of-consciousness sense. The lyrics include such characteristically tongue-in-cheek phrases like “24/7 creative adults.” Next comes the rather hilariously titled “Rushing the Acid Frat,” a name that seems fitting for Malkmus on various levels — Polo shirts, musical bizarreness, etc. He plays up the acid angle with especially vivid lines like “Arctic fission / Slather your eyes with perfume,” along with nuggets of lukewarm, jaded romanticism like “We will die together / Such a modest dream.” “Love the Door” is another freely-metered, tempo-shifting, free-wheeling jam. As usual, there’s no shortage of exciting guitar playing and quirky lyricism, with the vaguely self-aware, cheeky jabs steadily coming. Malkmus suggests, “Whatever stupidifics you take from what I am saying here / Carbonate the thrill.”
Malkmus turns up the rustic, down-home aesthetic for “Bossviscerate,” and match it with the trademark, designedly amateurish singing largely responsible for securing hordes of lifetime fans. Ever the indirect lyricist, he turns thing on their head, framing his opaqueness as a relative lack of pretension, singing, “They say they want you when they talk so straight to you / Get off your high horse, let me on.” “Ocean of Revenge,” a fanciful narrative of a Scottish sharecropper who murders a plantation owner, continues much in this same vein, sounding as if Malkmus has expelled his demons at this point, and settled comfortably back into standard routines. This all works out swimmingly, as the album offers an appealing balance of familiar sounds and alien outpourings. An outro with horns give this song a character of its own — a subtle spin on a tried-and-tested sound — much like the Indian elements did to “Come Get Me.” Finally, “Grown Nothing” runs like something of an amalgamation of all the characteristic elements, bringing the whole affair to closure in a very satisfactory way. In fitting with the bleakness that has characterized popular music thematically for the last couple years, Malkmus sings, “Everybody’s drying out / I’d like to imagine out of this place.” One thing for sure is that he’s certainly delivered in terms of imagination.
“Groove Denied” is a peculiar album in how it starts far left field and gradually makes its way to center, all the while balancing its madcap indulgences and marks of identity with a rare poise. Malkmus is the type of songwriter who has always tended to either entirely elude comprehension or garner impassioned adulation, depending on your proximity to the ever nebulous indie aesthetic. The new album throws plenty curveballs, and ventures down plenty familiar avenues. It’s a mixed bag likely to provoke mixed reactions, but all in all, yet another fresh and engaging release from a prolific artist with a distinctive voice.
“Groove Denied” is available March 15 on Apple Music.