Since departing from the revolutionary gold soundz of his name-making band Pavement, frontman Stephen Malkmus’ solo career has always felt decidedly low-stakes. From his self-titled debut, though brimming with Puckish delights on “Phantasies” and “Discretion Grove”, Malkmus has seemed satisfied to skip down middle-of-the-road with occasional jumps to the ditch like on Face the Truth.
On his 9th solo album, Malkmus crafts Traditional Techniques from earthen acoustics in a sonic exploration of folk and country generics. Though this marks the first time Malkmus has steadfastly committed himself to acoustics, the consonant album title – a place where Malkmus often sneaks poetic devices – indicates the same characteristic playfulness.
The opener, “ACC Kirtan”, sets the tone for Traditional Techniques as one of overwhelming lethargy. The ambient pedal steel is a pretty addition, recalling Pavement classic “Father to a Sister of Thought”, but instead of memorable licks and hooks, all it adds is washed-out wallpaper. Quais Essar and Eric Zhang provide Classical Indian textures, but gestures to world music are largely a fake-out.
Malkmus, ever the charmer, can always be relied on for quips that are as witty as they are goofy. Another worldly fake-out, “Xian Man”, reveals in its chorus to be pronounced ‘Christian Man’, though one doubts the replacement of ‘Christ’ with ‘X’ to be a comment on political correctness (Yet, it’s curious that, later in the album, “Signal Western” takes up decolonization in a cryptic song about a daughter’s friend).
Fatherhood has brought new dimensions to Malkmus as seen in the Mirror Traffic highlight “Share the Red”, with its touching letter to a child’s newfound independence. But “Xian Man” is unable to capitalize on the same wisdom and instead boasts another clunky dad joke with, “I’m Miles Davis better than you.”
Already by “The Greatest Own in Legal History” the album becomes tiresome and energy-sapping. There’s a lot of nice sounds here and some decent gags, but without Malkmus’ memorable electric guitar bursts of noise the music ends up edgeless. “Cash Up”, merely the fourth track, continues a pattern of aimlessness once the songs stretch beyond the 2- or 3-minute mark.
Traditional Techniques’ downside is largely just lethargic, save for the excruciating “Shadowbanned.” Within this song lies a potentially compelling theme of overstimulation in the internet multiverse: “Sky high on reddit, kharma fly/ Over Amazon wheatfields and rivers of Red Bull/Drip gush drip data-driven skip/To the part where the left bros parody TED Talks.” But unfortunately Malkmus has packaged it inside one of his most ear-grating melodies to date with his voicing insisting on prancing up to falsetto at nearly every line in the verse. That and the single-chord vamping weighing down tracks like this and “Xian Man” make for some of the least satisfying harmonic modes to appear on any Malkmus album.
In spite of all that, Traditional Techniques is impossible to hate due to its well-meaning charisma. “Cash Up” and “What Kind of Person” are slow, earnest ballads of the sort that endear the listener, encouraging lasting friendships that make you feel “beautiful forever.” It’s these sleepy, slackerisms entwined with purpose that define Malkmus’ best moments, instead of the lackadaisical air that hangs around when the album reaches the dawdling “Brainwashed”.
Even when ambivalent, Traditional Techniques is still learned in its ability to weave Malkmus’ youthful poetics into rough, aging folk. Though never quite committed to genre – for the songs still tend to follow Malkmus’ quirks – the album is undoubtedly a new setting for his inscrutable songwriting. These little lyrical wonders still lead listeners through winding twists and turns in an unexpected journey, but Traditional Techniques ultimately lacks the propulsion to get you through the maze.