Putting on Sparkle Hard for the first time last week I felt this strange sense of comforting familiarity. As someone who was unabashedly obsessed with Pavement’s last album Terror Twilight at the tail-end of the 90s, checking out Stephen Malkmus in 2018 makes me feel like the prodigal son, welcomed home and treated to a smorgasbord of goodies that I really don’t deserve. This album is phenomenal in its scope, it seems a crystallisation of everything that was great about Malkmus’ idiosyncratic writing in Pavement, but taken to transcendent soaring heights. Just listen to those strings on ‘Solid Silk’, alongside the soft retro synth-flute tones – it’s an album that sounds like it could have been made during a different era within the music industry; when interesting progressive rock bands decamped to posh studios for months on end, labouring over their overdubs and drafting in session musicians of every sort to turn their acid-fuelled bonkers ideas into wide-screen epics of Sgt. Pepper proportions.
Those albums often turned out as bloated tax write-offs, though, whereas Sparkle Hard is a joyful listen throughout. Full of playful hooks, memorable songs, and some bonkers ideas, sure, but not ones that seem to out-stay their welcome. The question I find myself asking is, how can this be Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ seventh album, and why have I not been listening to them the entire time? I suppose, as a teen I caught up with Pavement late, on their last album, and found myself working my way backwards over the next few years, seeing what their earlier albums had to offer. Right now, Sparkle Hard is sounding like a good entry point to The Jicks’ career to me. Covering a lot of ground in just shy of 45 minutes, it explores sounds we’d associate with indie, classic rock, folk, country, funk and pop, and sometimes all within the confines of one song – ‘Kite’ being a pretty good example of this. It’s nearly seven minutes long, but the folky intro sounds like a different song entirely, when compared to the extensive wailing guitar solo wig-out at the end, and the funky chops in the middle of the song might seem an unlikely glue between the two, but it works a treat.
Malkmus & The Jicks have this habit of taking things that ought to be pretty uncool, or passé, and making them their own, and more than that, making them work. For starters this often strays into the old-fashioned territory of being a rock guitar record, just listen to ‘Shiggy’. There’s plenty of this lead guitar work, often two of them going off at once, pushed right to the front of the mix, finding harmonies or breaking off on their own tangents. The use of guitar effects, like the funky wah-wah sounds found on ‘Kite’ or the outro section of ‘Difficulties / Let Them Eat Vowels’, can seem old fashioned too. Also the use of strange vocal effects, auto-tunes and vocoding that pop up from time to time, most notably on ‘Rattler’ (which sounds at times like some sort of post-millennial re-imagining of Queen’s ‘Flash’), shouldn’t really work. However, largely thanks to Malkmus’ all-pervading devil-may-care attitude and also, no doubt, due to the skill of Chris Funk from The Decemberists, who produced the record, they do.
The album’s penultimate track, ‘Refute’ is an almost too perfect country duet at first, until we reach the somewhat atypical chorus melody. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon steps in on the second verse, sounding great, shifting the narrative of the song further from the norm, as a lesbian housewife seducing the au pair. Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks are out there painting middle America as a world that’s weird and wonderful in a way we might have forgotten about. This is a fantastic album, with staying power, that could act as a great starting point for anyone who wants to delve deeper into the works of this idiosyncratic genius and his sympathetic band. Dive in – you wont regret it!