Note to readers: this is the second review that I have written for Stephen Malkmus’ Face the Truth, but is the only one that you will ever read on this page. The first one I wrote was a knee-jerk reaction to the album, essentially saying that Malkmus will never release anything as good as his albums with Pavement and that he’s on a downward spiral of endless wankery. But I’ve cooled off, allowed myself some time to think about what I said and regroup with a new approach to the record. So this is my attempt to fully understand the album and get behind Malkmus’ current wave of guitar jams and quirky idiosyncrasies. I feel I owe him that much.
But before I delve into the meat of the album, there are some questions that I would like answered. First of all, if this is truly Malkmus’ first “solo” record without the Jicks, why are the words “& the Jicks” printed on the back cover, as well as their pictures and roles in the band printed on the inner sleeve? Second of all, why did the ad campaign for this album feature an ugly 1970s porno poster pastiche? And thirdly, why did Paste magazine refuse to run it? The woman’s nipple was covered with a lion’s head, leaving the ad to be merely suggestive, and ugly, rather than pornographic. I may never have these questions answered, but I want to get them out into the open before I attempt to tackle this record once more.
On first listen, tracks one through three aren’t so special — noodly, quirky and messy, they’re what you’d expect from Malkmus, but not much more. However, the leadoff track, “Pencil Rot,” actually slowly becomes an amazing piece of music. Initially a bizarre Casio-pop track, the song builds into a much stronger rock piece, with Malkmus’ fascinating chorus vocal: “Let me cut of my head/in my bed/there’s a lovely leather-brown poison.” The following track, “It Kills,” isn’t too shabby either, a logical extension of the guitar-happy songs on 2003’s Pig Lib. Yet, the third track, “I’ve Hardly Been,” does little more than revolve around a stale, vaguely Middle-Eastern riff. But one bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch in this case, and after repeated listenings, even that song isn’t so bad.
After “I’ve Hardly Been,” the album angles upward in terms of songwriting. “Freeze the Saints” is a pretty, quieter song with Malkmus’ clean tone guitar augmented by mellotron backing harmonies. And “Loud Cloud Crowd” has its share of Casio orchestration backing up the otherwise subdued track. In a way it sounds like late ’80s/early ’90s Cure, though not nearly as dramatic. The following song, “No More Shoes,” is just shy of eight minutes long, the “1% of One” of this record, if you will. Some have already proclaimed this track superior to “1%,” though I, personally, enjoyed that track quite a bit. This one, however, does have more of a structured rock sensibility about it, rather than being built on loose jamming. And for an eight minute song, it seems a lot shorter, which is always going to be a compliment coming from someone like myself.
Face the Truth offers some of Malkmus’ best solo pop tunes to date. The aforementioned “Freeze the Saints” and “Loud Cloud Crowd” are highly commendable accomplishments, as is “Mama,” a three-minute tune with just a little bit of Pavement in it, which will definitely appease old-schoolers. “Kindling for the Master” could have been a lot more awesome than it is, if Malkmus only had the discipline to drop all of the quirky keyboard sounds. But Malkmus makes up for it with the garage rocker “Baby Come On,” a kick-ass Who-inspired tune with Malkmus wailing “Well you say that you’re too old to yell, But too young for Hell/It’s not far away!”
After having some time to reconsider, I’ve concluded that Face the Truth is, indeed, a good album. Somewhere between the straightforward self-titled debut and the heroic Pig Lib, this album is an imperfect but ultimately enjoyable effort for Malkmus. It’s hard to say whether he’ll ever have the discipline to make a really “tight” record, but as long as his songwriting ability doesn’t slip any, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. To put it in his own words (from “Freeze the Saints”), “Done is good/but done well is so much fucking better.”
Pavement – Terror Twilight
Preston School of Industry – Monsoon
Built to Spill – Ancient Melodies of the Future
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.