Now that he's released the same number of solo albums as he did with Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has proven, if nothing else, that he's still committed to making music as a full-time career. Furthermore, the work he's done with his backing band, The Jicks, has been of a fairly consistent quality and definitely not the work of a man coasting on goodwill from his youth. Wandering between eclectic, song focused releases (his self titled debut and Face The Truth) and guitar-centric, jammy records (Pig Lib, Real Emotional Trash), his post-Pavement work has seen him go as far as he can. Now he's settled into the craftsman phase of his career, making music that never re-invents his sound or innovates but is nevertheless enjoyable.
Mirror Traffic is something of an attempt to combine the two sides of his Jicks-backed solo work. Boasting 15 songs, it's to be expected that it wanders a bit. Anyway, focus and finesse were never one of Malkmus's strongpoints. He's usually at his best when he's wandering to extremes, and this record tries to go to both of his extremes at the same time. So you'd expect that the obvious touchstones for this album would be Pavement's Wowee Zowee and Real Emotional Trash, and you'd be right. Except that, when he made those albums, those extremes were new and fresh. Mirror Traffic is, well, exactly what you'd expect of a new Stephen Malkmus album in 2011.
See, Mirror Traffic is a comfortable record. He's pretty much doing what he's always done, and even when the results can be as good as anything he's ever done, it's still a boring, disinterested album. When Malkmus goes for a big guitar solo, the playing may be as strong as ever, but it doesn't always follow coherently from the song—the way 'Long Hard Book' ends with a solo feels completely half-assed, as if he couldn't think of a good ending so he stuck in a guitar solo. Lyrically, Malkmus has never been the most sensical writer, but there was an oblique logic to his lines. On Mirror Traffic, I always got the impression the music was written first and then he improvised lyrics to fit; 'Share The Red' comes off like a song written around guitar solos, and the embarrassingly bad 'Senator' will rank up there with 'Discretion Grove' and 'Major Leagues' in the pantheon of Malkmus stabs at mainstream acceptance/relevance.
Tellingly, Mirror Traffic is at its best when Malkmus is trying new things. 'No One Is (As I Are Be)' argues compellingly for an all acoustic album from him at some point in his career, with an easygoing backing of skittering snare drum and modest bass lines. The short instrumental 'Jumblegloss' recalls the psychedelic ending to the album version of Pavement's 'Shady Lane' and unfortunately ends right as it seems to be heading for some lyrics. Continuing in his now established tradition of excellent album closers, 'Gorgeous Georgie' makes me wish he would use the Jicks more prominently as vocalists. However, the overall story of this record is one of good-but-redundant rock songs. After the first two tracks you could listen to the album in any order you wish. There's no sense of flow or pacing to where 'Stick Figures In Love', 'Spazz', 'Tune Grief', 'Forever 28', and 'Fall Away' are placed. Which isn't to say they're bad songs, they're simply forgettable and Malkmus sounds like he's going through the motions.
Feelings for Mirror Traffic are going to be all over the place. It's the kind of record where if you've been following Malkmus's career closely, you'll think it's a solid if unremarkable release, one that doesn't see him besting his past or going many new places. If you've only occasionally listened to Malkmus over the years, Mirror Traffic will seem quirky and interesting, sometimes sloppy but still fun.