My favorite version of Stephen Malkmus is Sincere Malkmus. Sparkle Hard’s first single, “Middle America,” might be the shining example of how to be sincere without being gaudy; vulnerable without being cliche. Previous Jicks records sometimes required the listener to be in on the joke, but not here. The lyrics are more focused than tossed-off, and the vocal performance is put front and center, supported by a sparse, perfunctory backing track. The result is an affecting song about time and aging, an updated version of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to suggest that the “I” in the “Middle America”—a character wondering how to stay relevant while being crushed back to where he belongs—is a direct analog for Malkmus himself, but he certainly sells it as such. It is one of the best songs Malkmus has ever released. (In pre-release press, both Malkmus and bassist Joanna Bolme mentioned wanting to cut the song from the record. I’m glad that didn’t happen.)
“Middle America” is a highlight on an album full of highlights. The lyrical focus is harnessed again on “Bike Lane,” the verses of which both detail the awful fate of “sweet young Freddie Gray” and take a stab at the “poor cops” who now have an “audience” getting in their way. The repeated refrain of “another beautiful bike lane” creates a contrast that is both unsettling and poignant; the listener has no choice but to reassess their own politics. The fact that the instrumental is the catchiest on the record makes it an even more uncomfortable listen: Should I be enjoying this song this much? “Bike Lane” also showcases the excellent production on Sparkle Hard. Previous Jicks records have trended toward spartan presentations of their music, which does a few things: It safeguards against sounding dated, keeps budgets down, and makes the songs easier to pull off live. (The influence of the Velvet Underground on the Jicks can not be understated, especially in their attitude toward recording.) It can, however, handcuff or undersell the material.
In this sense, Sparkle Hard feels like the first time the Jicks got it truly right in the studio. The record sounds cohesive and coherent, while still giving the songs the individual production flourishes they need. To that end, I’m sure “Bike Lane” will be a ripper live, but the recorded version begs for repeated listens. The low-tuned guitars sound almost like bass, and echo the perfectly hamfisted lead guitar and gritty doubled vocals. (For my money, this is Bolme’s best moment on any Jicks record. Her part evolves over the course of the song, almost reaching frenetic status during the guitar freakout.)
Speaking of vocals: There is auto-tune and vocal manipulation on this record. I admit that hearing this in the lead-up to the release made me bristle; Jicks fans will remember the proud “NO PRO TOOLS” scrawled in the liner notes to 2005’s Face the Truth, a staunch rebuttal to the Beat Detective/“fix it in post” mentality that has prevailed in rock music for the past two decades. But times change, and hearing the group embrace the studio is welcome. Malkmus bought the Izotype Nectar plugin while working on the demos for the Sparkle Hard, and it’s used to great effect. On “Rattler,” the robotic vocal adds a creepy post-human element to a song about “Facebook doom” and the need to “watermark your tomb;” on “Let Them Eat Vowels,” the lyrics of which seem to be comprised mainly of internet slang, the manipulated voice ends up with this observation: “All we have made/a cavalcade of reactive moralities.” Malkmus is an intellectual, and having him weigh in on life in 2018 is welcome. Fans of his older, slightly more detached writing shouldn’t get too concerned, though—you’ll still get gems like “It’s slug eat slug,” and “Pairing up in lab coats for that frog dissection/look at his guts”.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jicks record without some wild guitar playing (another favorite Malkmus: Not-So-Secret Shredder Malkmus). The words “jammy” and “anthemic” have pejorative connotations in my head, but this record has guitar playing that finds the perfect intersection between both of those descriptors. Deliberation is key here, once again: each guitar sounds carefully considered, and the use of filter guitar effects reigns supreme. I’m not sure I’ve heard as many wah wahs, envelope filters, phasers, and step filters on a record in a long time. The leads themselves are a little less meandering while retaining the trademark Malkmus “Will he make it?” style (see 4/4 banger “Shiggy”). The end result is thrilling. I admit to putting “Let Them Eat Vowels” on repeat just to hear the outro, and psych-odyssey “Kite” has Malkmus one-upping himself in a guitar duel. It’s not all exploding fuzz and fretboard theatrics, though—“Solid Silk” has sublime and subdued overdubs which support a beautiful, violin augmented melody.
I’ve listened to this record a lot over the past few months—before recording sessions for my own band, while running my first 15km race (hold your applause), while cooking dinner; you name it. Sparkle Hard is not a rebirth for the Jicks, but it’s a refinement of their strengths. Sparkle Hard is a fantastic record. It might even be a vital record. I love it. You should go buy this record—and start getting hyped for Groove Denied…