He doesn't look a day over 37, but Stephen Malkmus is the grand old man of indie rock. With Pavement in the Nineties, he gave underground noise a shot of romance and style, setting the banquet table for Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire, and Pavement's 2010 reunion tour soaked up a tidal wave of love. On his third disc with Portland cronies the Jicks, Malkmus, 45, revels in this emeritus status, luxuriating in Seventies guitar majesty and irony-free gorgeousness. "Forty with a kid, living on the grid," he notes. There's as much liberation as resignation in that line.
Mirror Traffic is Malkmus' most varied post-Pavement record. Beck produces with a light touch, and Malkmus spools out well-crafted folk tunes, loopy wit, finely wrought prog fantasias and laser-show axmanship. On "Senator," the album's most explosive song, Malkmus' guitar throws fire as he shouts, "I know what the senator wants/What the senator wants is a blow job!" It's a monster jam for the Weiner summer.
Mostly, though, the album hints that Malkmus' softer side has become his best side. The guy really is a nuanced guitar player, possibly the most underrated of his generation; "Stick Figures in Love" has an album's worth of interwoven prettiness. Elsewhere, he writes about intimacy with a middle-aged realism that suggests Paul Simon—see "Brain Gallop," about trying to restart romance when "there's not much left inside my tank today." Malkmus shows you don't have to move to the woods and house squirrels in your beard to prove you're a sensitive male. Alterna-dad elegance will do.
Listen to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' "Senator":