In 1987, Stephen Malkmus had a bad MDMA trip. This was one reason, according to the press release for his new album, that he gave “a wide berth” to rave culture in the following decade; he was also busy making several classic indie-rock albums with Pavement at the time. But a few years ago, Malkmus was living in Berlin when he started exploring the city’s club scene and developed an affinity for techno. This was the germ for his new electronic album, Groove Denied, on which one of rock’s great guitar poets messes with synths, drum machines and a vaguely British accent.
Malkmus played all the parts on Groove Denied himself, using, among other things, Ableton software, a Moog, a mellotron, and “E drums with addictive drums.” Key influences, according to a recent Rolling Stone interview, include the Human League, “Louie Louie” and – hey, why not – the cantina scene in Star Wars. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery to the more electronic tunes, of a laid-back icon finding new ways to make noise after the kids have gone to bed. Mostly instrumental opener “Belziger Faceplant” burbles along before opening up into hard-grooving electro-funk; “Viktor Borgia” is arch, circa-1982 synth-pop; the swirling “Forget Your Place” sounds cool through headphones.
Malkmus wrote most of the album a few years back, but Matador declined to release it until the label had put out last year’s Sparkle Hard, which featured his longtime band the Jicks. That album was light on the wry humor Malkmus is known for; Groove Denied feels like a more playful companion. But it isn’t a massive departure from his past work. For one thing, its emphasis on texture and sonic exploration recalls early Pavement EPs, which were also full of funny noises played on instruments with made-up names, interrupted by actual songs. For another, it becomes more guitar-heavy on the back half. “Rushing the Acid Frat” sounds like homemade Nuggets while the striking “Ocean of Revenge” is a catchy, softly-rocking sketch in which a Scottish sharecropper gets hanged for axe-murdering a Mississippi plantation owner. “Love the Door” is best described by the man himself: “Kind of like a stereo ad, cocktail jazz thing, but with bad vibes and a weird time signature.”
If you come for the textures, stay for the songs. The best might be the last, “Grown Nothing,” all chiming acoustics and gentle crooning over what sounds like programmed bossa nova drums. (Tucking a subtly gorgeous guitar ballad in at the end of your playful electronic album: very Malkmus.) Not everything on Groove Denied works, but it’s gratifying to see a great songwriter still busy being born.