Stephen Malkmus beat a winding path of discovery after Pavement split, relegating all his best material to B-sides on EPs that only underscored the blandness of his self-titled debut. "Sin Taxi", "Leisurely Poison" and "Sex Life of Robinson Crusoe Pt. II"-- a superlative experimental piece available exclusively from his website-- destroyed everything on the second-guessed Stephen Malkmus, which itself went under a better working title, Swedish Reggae. Sick to death of the dull tempos and sunset nostalgia that so corrupted Pavement's finale, Stephen Malkmus pushed me further away, but those B-sides kept me holding out hope our lately stuffy prince could see the error of his ways.

You've basically got three types of Malkmus fans: "Stop Breathin"/"Church on White" romantics, well-adjusted "Loretta's Scars"/"Jenny and the Ess-Dog" hipsters, and those annoying "Best Friend's Arm"/"Troubbble" dorks, constantly sticking up for "Hit The Plane Down" even though it makes the rest of us puke. Pavement could get away with shit like that, because... well, because Bob Nastanovich was in the band-- they had a Fool to distract from and defuse their bum notes. Before I get started on Malkmus' latest, let's all take a minute and recognize Bob Nastanovich, the bug light that made Pavement the best backyard in town. Thank you, Bob.

Pig Lib reaches out to ostracized Pavement fans from the get-go: "Water and a Seat" returns to the uniquely assured, yet unrestrainedly goofy swagger of Wowee Zowee, reincarnating those slinky 70s riffs, its chorus belted from swaying heels. Rolling Stone said his debut accomplished this, but, they're idiots and they're very wrong. "Ramp of Death"-- a mellower "Black Out" (from Wowee)-- cements that Malkmus is back in touch with what made Pavement great: the retiring, resigned ambivalence worn as a false mask by its privately melodramatic singer. While a critic could claim he's regressing into (or outright raiding) sounds of old, it's been six years since a Pavement song sunk its claws in this critic ("Type Slowly" if you're asking), and more than half of Pig Lib has me feeling as many years much younger. Something has audibly had the same effect on Stephen Malkmus: The stifling malaise that seeped from Pavement's Terror Twilight and his solo debut has lifted, and if we're only in the eye of his emotional hurricane, I'm fuckin' dancing.

"(Do Not Feed The) Oyster" sobers up "Extradition", finding a sublime springtime anthem under the noodling of old, its new chorus recalling The Pixies' "Palace of the Brine"; it caps an introductory trio of tunes that seem to set the bar too high for the rest of Pig Lib. Pavement learned a harsh lesson about sequencing albums from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, knowledge Malkmus put to good use on his debut, smartly spreading the best tracks over the entire record. In contrast, Pig Lib herds its most mediocre moments into the middle of the album, but pays penance with "Dark Wave", a ripping reclamation of Malkmus the record collector, an astute, subtle slam on the state of underground music. A dripping, phased reverb coats the guitar-- invoking The Cure's "A Forest" and "Fire in Cairo"-- as menacing keyboards and "doot doot" chants mock the phony new wave packing clubs nationwide.

The glaring red flag on Pig Lib's tracklist is the nine-minute "1% of One", which obliterates Malkmus' last moment of epic ostentation ("Filmore Jive"). "1% of One" is less an anthem than an extended jam, however, somewhat clumsily inserting its three two-minute freakouts before returning-- as awkwardly-- to the airy, jazzy chorus. For the first minute, Malkmus sings the disposable tale of a Dutch recording engineer who falls asleep while mixing this very album. Ostensibly, the next eight minutes are an instrumental adaptation of his dreams. Let's move on.

Pig Lib closes with "Us", made available by Matador Records as an advance MP3; "Us" makes a very incongruous teaser as it sounds nothing like the rest of the album, but it's unquestionably the sweetest fruit on Pig Lib. Rute sticks tap out a warm, wooden beat; a far-off guitar echoes through trees in the right channel, drawn out by daybreak keyboards panned hard left. "Us" marks the first tangible appearance of The Jicks, as drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme join Malkmus on overpowering harmonies, sweeping you off your feet as they swell to a twang chorus.

So yes, Malkmus is back, but it's also true and important to note that he was gone for a while; the depressing Slow Century DVD was a pallbearer for his and Pavement's exuberance, and a reminder of better days long gone. In laying the Pavement spectre to rest, the DVD sparked Malkmus, who for the first time in years loses himself in music on Pig Lib, toying with lyrics the way he used to. But it's as much the arrival of The Jicks as it is the rebirth of Stephen Malkmus: The band has become a grounding force he can push and pull from, a safety net allowing him to take risks. As he stammers, then bellows the last chorus of "(Do Not Feed The) Oyster", the kingdom rejoices: Their prince is free.


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