“Real Emotional Trash” had the makings of a great album. A bootleg from last year displayed exciting new material. The heavy psychedelic sound, wild and crisp at once, professional, loose, seemed to be what Stephen Malkmus had been going for all along.
Pavement’s infinitely charming amateurishness, it seemed, had finally been traded in for a viable alternative that actually expanded on (rather than self-consciously imitating) the template. A punchy new drummer, Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney, was added to the mix. Even the album title seemed to bode well. It suggested that Malkmus, going on 42 and father of two, intended something a little weightier than his previous solo offerings. So why is “Real Emotional Trash” such a dud – at least by Pavement/Malkmus standards?
First of all, the whole thing sounds canned, characterless. Malkmus has mostly traded in the semi-silly indie-pop that has been a mainstay of his nearly ten-year solo career for a sound that owes much to ’70s progressive and psychedelic rock. But this is exactly the problem. Pavement never directly imitated any particular sound (with very few exceptions: e.g., the Fall on “Two States”). At least, the songs don’t suggest direct copying — “appropriating” would even be too strong a word; what they did was far subtler. This was the beauty of the band. Everything they achieved sounds completely off-the-cuff, a glorious mess on the verge of collapse that somehow hangs together. Any number of styles — Bowiesque glam, loungey cheese, ’60s bubblegum, hardcore punk, English and American folk, ’90s college rock, country, noise — were refracted through the cracked Pavement prism. The Jicks, on “Real Emotional Trash,” are the purveyors of generic, tepid psychedelia. They sound like a band called the Jicks. (I would give the album two and a half stars if I could. One rounds up for Malkmus.)
Allow me to rhapsodize a little more on Pavement, the greatest, most essential band of the last twenty years. The way nobody ever sounded like the Velvet Underground or the Beatles, nobody sounded, or will sound, like Pavement. You get addicted to Pavement in a very instinctual, visceral way: it’s not the “cerebral” pleasure that the ignorant believe. Listening to Pavement becomes necessary in order to sustain a measure of happiness in your daily life. You get hooked, you find endless interest in their songs. There are lyrics that you only finally pick out after a hundred listens and then cannot remove from your thoughts. There are moments of, yes, pure beauty; rocking moments; moments of hilarity; moments of super-catchy sonic oddity; and running through the whole catalog is that addictive, lazy, hip-hopish drag-beat, a beat as distinctive as the Bo Diddley beat — popularized by Steve West but invented, and perfected, by Gary Young. (For two masterpieces of the indie burnout genre, check out “Things We Do For You” and the “Gray Album” by one of the true geniuses of Pavement. Purists say the band was never the same after Young’s departure post-“Slanted.” I may very well agree.)
In the midst of Pavement there was S. M. himself. What made this guy so lovable? He had all the attributes of an enormous turn-off: pretentiousness, a high, nasally voice, deliberate obscurity, whimsy, solipsism. His delivery was prissy, sissy, fussy, giddy, goofy, gay. But the adjectives just don’t do him justice. They don’t explain why this lanky anglophile was an ubermensch of indie rock. Nobody else walked the tightrope between irony and sincerity with his level of grace and bravado.
Sadly, he can’t really pull it off anymore. You can’t do it when you’re 40 and a father and can’t croak out the pre-pubescent high notes. Through no fault of his own, middle age happened.