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21st Century Schizoid Man

 

Stephen Malkmus: Face the Truth

Matador, 2005

Rating: 3.7

 

Posted: May 20, 2005

By Laurence Station

Thin Lizzy’s 1973 album Vagabonds of the Western World includes a song called “The Hero and the Madman” that is cheesy, self-indulgent, inspired and just plain bizarre. Face the Truth, the third solo release from Stephen Malkmus, is “The Hero and the Madman” of the former Pavement frontman’s catalog. The key line from the Thin Lizzy tune -- “Are you the hero or are you the madman?” -- aptly sums up Face the Truth’s conflicted nature. It is a solo effort (created in Malkmus’ basement studio in Portland, Oregon), though members of his backing band, the Jicks, appear throughout. There are hook-friendly tunes reminiscent of Malkmus’ self-titled debut, and more prog-oriented jams characteristic of 2003’s winning full-band effort Pig Lib. But it’s in the lyrical content that Face the Truth truly reveals its schizophrenic, far-left-of-center tendencies. Malkmus has always been an oblique wordsmith, and it’s rather pointless to overanalyze the meaning of his frequently elliptical expressions. That being said, Face the Truth may provide as clear an insight into the prismatic strangeness of Malkmus’ psyche as anything he’s ever recorded.

Over a bouncing drum machine and squelchy synthesizer, Malkmus opens Face the Truth with the line “There’s a villain in my head.” The villain’s name: Leather McWhip (which is as sadomasochistically telling as it is brilliantly silly). “Save me from me” is the mantra on “Pencil Rot,” and that pretty much sums up the musical and lyrical apprehension at play throughout the album. On the bluesy, meandering “It Kills,” the question “What you gonna do?” is answered with “I don’t know my friend.” “I've Hardly Been,” built around a Spartan synth groove, proclaims “Normal is weirder than you would care to admit” and includes the album’s single best phrase: “The shab ability to locate quagmire hearts on the map.”

Malkmus shifts stylistic gears on the easy-gliding “Freeze the Saints,” an airy number about existential apathy (“Help me languish here”) and, naturally, offers more fodder for the armchair analyst: “If you need the pain / Well you are, yes you are so much like me.” “No More Shoes” is an eight-minute jam planted squarely in the center of the album (hey, while we’re at it, let’s compare it to the dividing line between the two hemispheres of the brain! ... Er, maybe not). “No More Shoes” isn’t on par with Pig Lib’s epic-length blowout “1% of One,” primarily because it doesn’t rock as hard, but also due to the fact that Malkmus utilizes lightweight “doo-doo-doo” harmonies that trigger foggy remembrances of Seals & Crofts and England Dan & John Ford Coley. Thankfully, for the sake of our “subconscious Malkmus revealed” thesis, it contains lines like “All my stray thoughts / They are unarranged / All my stray thoughts / They are impure.”

The back half of Face the Truth is far looser and considerably more fun to listen to (if not as analytically rewarding). The untroubled, footloose “Mama” recreates a simple boyhood memory about sitting around the house with the family; the effortlessly sinuous “Post-Paint Boy” skewers self-absorbed up-and-comers on the art gallery circuit (“You’re the maker of modern minor masterpieces for the untrained eye”); “Baby C'mon” is good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll stamp and swagger that surprisingly pulls off rhyming “Timmy” with “limb” by adding a tailing Y.

There are two serious duds on Face the Truth (appropriately enough, one on each “side” of the bifurcating “No More Shoes”). The fuzzy, unexciting “Loud Cloud Crowd” sports multi-tracked vocals that come off like lo-fi Simon and Garfunkel two-part harmonies, and features the decidedly un-Simon- and-Garfunkel-like chorus “Fractured knees / Calamities / Enfold me in serenity.” “Kindling for the Master” is digitized white-boy funk that sounds like a less-impressive cousin to “Blue Rash Intact,” the song Malkmus contributed to the Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel concept compilation.

Face the Truth is paradoxically the most intriguing Malkmus album and the weakest of his post-Pavement career. Score one for dastardly madman Leather McWhip.

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