Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

Wig Out at Jagbags

(Matador; 2014)

By Maura McAndrew | 13 January 2014

“Stephen Malkmus doesn’t care.” This is the sentiment that crops up over and over again in a career’s worth of writing on the former Pavement frontman and indie rock legend, often alongside words such as “apathetic,” “dispassionate,” and “shrug.” I wrote such things myself after I saw him mumble through a set in 2005. Even in reviews for Wig Out at Jagbags, Malkmus’s sixth album with the Jicks, though many are finally willing to concede that he did once care, it’s only to justify the sentiment that he’s given up. He’s going through the motions. Stephen Malkmus doesn’t care.

So what is it about Stephen Malkmus that gives this impression? Yes, the man is sarcastic, laid back; he sings (on Jagbags alone) about yurts and manservants and janitors. He doesn’t always seem cheerful at shows or in interviews. But how can a person spend nearly thirty years of his life, without an extended break, writing and recording and touring and doing press if he “doesn’t care”? The rewards of indie rock are not that great. Maybe the Rolling Stones don’t care. Maybe U2 doesn’t care. But Stephen Malkmus must, right? It’s the only explanation. Listening to Wig Out at Jagbags is what sparked this train of thought, as to me it represents a subtle shift for Malkmus into slightly more introspective territory. In a way, many of the songs here are about loving music, and being a career musician—a topic he has mostly avoided since the days of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994). He cares, and he’s finally (sort of) admitting it.

Wig Out at Jagbags is a milestone in Malkmus’s career with the Jicks, as their discography now exceeds Pavement’s. Though the band has clearly settled into a groove, they have (contrary to popular argument) changed up their sound over the years. The Jicks are not, creatively, what Pavement was, but their records are no more “all the same” than Pavement’s were. Wig Out at Jagbags has a lot in common with Mirror Traffic (2010) in its relatively short, tight songs and general pop sensibility, but it’s also more akin to the brilliant Stephen Malkmus (2001) than any Jicks record since, perhaps due to its generally refreshed, energetic feeling. It’s bursting with a lot of things, like playfulness and cynicism and optimism and nostalgia and absurdity. But never apathy. As Malkmus recently told Rob Sheffield regarding the ’90s: “In retrospect, being cynical just meant that you cared.” Wig Out at Jagbags wears its heart on its sleeve more than perhaps any other Malkmus record (even if it’s still buried under layers of ironic tee shirts). And from time to time in these twelve songs, it peaks out.

The best moments on Wig Out at Jagbags, then, are those that feel the most personal, despite the distancing humor Malkmus is known to employ. The first is “Lariat,” perhaps the catchiest song he’s written since “Jenny and the Ess-Dog,” and one that celebrates music and nostalgia while also, of course, poking fun at our cultural obsession with the latter. He switches points of view often, first mocking the frat boys of his youth (“We lived on Tennyson and venison / And the Grateful Dead”), then celebrating his own college days (“It was Mudhoney summer / Torch of the Mystics, Double Bummer). In the euphoric refrain, “We grew up listening to the music / From the best decade ever,” he’s rolling his eyes, but he’s also being honest; it was the best of times, but he knows that’s a stupid thing to declare.

“Rumble at the Rainbo” takes an equally conflicted position. An empathetic yet gently teasing ode to aging punks, it straddles the line between mocking the idea that one can stay cool 4-ever, and celebrating those, like Malkmus himself, who will probably be playing rock music until they die. “This one’s for youuuu, Grandad!”, the track begins, as he implores us to “Come and join us in this punk-rock tomb / Come slam-dancin’ with some ancient dudes.” The chorus is rousing: “Can you remember / The thrill and the rush / You’re not out of touch / Come tonight, you’ll see / No one here has changed and no one ever will.” There’s definitely an element of melancholy here, as there is in “Lariat”: of course these guys are “out of touch.” Of course everyone changes. But in that chirpy, building chorus also lies a streak of positivity: who cares, when the “thrill and the rush” remain? Rock on, Grandad.

Wig Out at Jagbags contains a myriad of other beautiful and funny moments; standouts include the gorgeously weird “Houston Hades” (which includes the line “If love is Hades / For all you Slim Shadys”), the trumpet-laden slow jam “J Smoov,” and the ’70s-style rambler “Chartjunk.” Overall, the record feels looser and rowdier than the carefully contained Mirror Traffic, and there’s also a sea of complicated emotions present in these songs, mostly tied to growing older and deciding what to hang onto and what to let go. Wig Out at Jagbags is Stephen Malkmus at his best—witty and wordy, but also quietly moving. “Houston Hades” is the perfect example. It’s a song that starts off talking about “truck-huggers and gun-luggers” over a “Beast of Burden” bounce, but builds into a sharply devastating coda: “Tearing it away. Tearing it away. Tearing it away…” It’s the kind of song that makes you hold your breath and draw closer to the speaker, it’s the kind of song that only Stephen Malkmus can write, and it’s the kind of song that proves, once and for all, that Stephen Malkmus cares.