Photo from Matador Records
Stephen Malkmus’ signature brand of abstract and non sequitur lyrics can most often be found floating over the instrumentals of Pavement and his own band, The Jicks. Raucous guitars and bombastic drums match his frenetic singing and shrieking crescendos, shirking any notions of predictability.
But on Groove Denied, his long awaited stab at electronic music, Malkmus allows synthesizers, drum machines and loops to bubble to the surface. Over a well-paced 33 minute runtime, Malkmus explores the different eras of electronic music and plugs his own charisma into the digital landscape.
The first three songs on the album, his first solo release without The Jicks since 2001, are the most purely electronic, with the pulsing opener “Belziger Faceplant” resembling Kraftwerk’s wide sound on its outro. Groove Denied owes a heavy influence to krautrock. The cover itself looks as if it could be a supply crate in the Berlin Airlift and the title is an overtly tongue-in-cheek nod to early electronic records and sci-fi.
“Viktor Borgia,” the lead single, is the strongest of the three and purveys a sterile kind of love song, most strikingly in its hook, “Your eyes are like a present/From a peasant oh/And he cherishes them so oh oh.” The song also sums up one of the album’s themes, which is shedding feelings of being an outsider and finding a space of belonging: “We walk into the club/Thank the heavens above/There’s a place we can go.” The song’s synthy musical break is undeniably an earworm.
Groove Denied, like Malkmus’ past records, also has its share of guitar work and even features an glitchy solo on “Come Get Me.” The song marks a sea change on the album where the following songs, save “Forget Your Place,” veer sonically closer to Pavement or The Jicks rather than New Order or Gary Numan. “Forget Your Place” is built around a synthesizer loop and could easily have fit on Panda Bear’s last record. It’s mantra-like titular refrain and lyrics in the verses such as “Sky high in the galleria” and “High plains driftin’” make the song stand out as the most stonerfied on the album. It’s a nice, meditative change-up that lets the album breathe for a moment.
The pivot from pure electronic to electronic indie rock is not necessarily unwelcome. A few of the best songs on the album are more in the style of rock, such as “Rushing the Acid Frat,” “Come Get Me” and “Boss Viscerate.” “Rushing the Acid Frat,” the album’s second single and best song, begins with the lyrics “I had a vision,” which almost feels like a mission statement for the entire album. The live drum playing gives the song an extra sense of life.
The final song, “Grown Nothing,” closes the album with a breezy guitar-based tune that points out how we are all “riding the planet at the same time.” It’s a light, fitting ending to an album with such dense production. It slowly pulls the listener out of all the circuitry and quantization.
Groove Denied’s themes oscillate between love and loneliness. The main lyrics of “Belziger Faceplant” are “I love what you are to me/Easy to see, easy to be,” but just two songs later on “Come Get Me,” Malkmus calls for help, lamenting “Out on a limb here/I can’t walk on a ledge eternal.” Later in the album,“Boss Viscerate” has Malkmus contemplating his lover, saying “I barely tried to understand your grace/The way you occupy prosaic space,” and ends with a little drum machine outro to keep with the theme. But the next song, a “Maggie’s Farm”-type farmworker number called “Ocean of Revenge,” finds him in surrender, saying “I felt so alien in this burnt world/Far away from the fan/I turned rancid.” The lyrics unfurl almost like an internal monologue between confidence and self-doubt.
Despite the premise of Stephen Malkmus making an electronic record seeming kind of gimmicky, the lyrics on Groove Denied are as strong, introspective and charmingly aloof as any of his other releases. In short, he still has feelings and happenings to decipher, even if he deliberately obfuscates what they are. And the music here, all credited to Malkmus, sounds fresh enough to make headway against recent rock and electronic releases while also harkening back to the days of electronic music’s rise. Perhaps a lyric from the modern-sounding track “Love the Door” best explains Malkmus’ purpose on this album of leaving his comfort zone to entertain listeners: “Whatever stupidifics you take from what I am saying here/Carbonate the thrill.”
By Luke Furman