Is history set to repeat itself for Stephen Malkmus? When Pavement recorded their fifth album, they chose uber-producer Nigel Godrich to handle the job, one of many nails in Pavement’s eventual coffin, and an album that divided fans. For Mirror Traffic, Malkmus opted for another famous, but untested as a producer, to chair the sessions in Beck Hansen. Is Mirror Traffic to be the tepid equivalent of Terror Twilight? Is Malkmus taking a leaf from fellow Beck-produced Thurston Moore and opting for a pared back approach? Yes (head straight to CSN&Y folk-rockin’ “No One Is (As I Be) for a taste”) and no, but mostly no.
It’s a diverse and involved beast on first listen, tracks sit together uncomfortably and lack cohesion. Instrumentation is more involved and the presence of slide guitar is noticeable, seemingly influenced by the laidback Malibu vibe that lingers over the album (“Long Hard Book” for example). The involved melody work-out of “Tigers” is something that you could almost picture on the Southern rock affectations of Pavement’s Wowee Zowee. No longer prone to extended prog-rock lead guitar work-outs, Malkmus’ wandering left-hand has been tamed (the solo freakery of “Brain Gallop” aside) and it’s back to business as usual, circa 1994.
With the Pavement reunion crossed off hardcore fans and newbies lists, future allegiances to Malkmus’ work is on shaky ground, which seems ironic in that Mirror Traffic is the most Pavement sounding album in his solo canon. But still, you want growth and maturity and Malkmus seems incapable of being anything but a grey-haired ex-slacker in sneakers and a ringer tee making lyrically irreverent indie guitar music. Which is fine when you’re in your twenties, but as your audience ages with you, (“I can’t even do one sit-up/sit-ups are so bourgeoisie”) does it still have the same effect?
Mirror Traffic has its moments (“Tigers”, “Stick Figures In Love”, the “Mr. Blue Sky” bounce of “Forever 28”), much the same way as Real Emotional Trash and Face The Truth before it had theirs too. Put together they might add up to something, but not nearly as much as they should on their on and at 15 tracks, Mirror Traffic is just too damn long. As the first generation of indie rock icons hit uncharted late-adulthood, the expectations to remain true to their art persist, but look around and you’ll see that you’re one step away from jamming with your kids’ friends’ dads in your basement and remembering what it was like when you played Lollapalooza with the greats of your generation. Boy, didn’t we have a blast.