My favorite scene in the polymorphous Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There is when Cate Blanchett lip-syncs to a scathing version of "Ballad of a Thin Man." Except it's not Dylan's voice on the soundtrack — it's a remake sung by Stephen Malkmus, with requisite venom and a self-conscious wink.
I think Malkmus had Dylan in mind when he made his fourth solo record, Real Emotional Trash. Not because it sounds much like Dylan, although "We Can't Help You" does get close for a minute there.
Malkmus' solo career has been, at least in part, about trying to escape the long shadow of Pavement, the group he fronted in the '90s and which — to continue the classic-rock analogies — remains the Led Zeppelin of indie rock. And maybe more than anything he's done, this new recording finds Malkmus engaged in the sort of shape-shifting that made up Dylan's career. He wears a different mask on virtually every song. There's Malkmus, the snarky pop scientist on "Gardenia." There's Malkmus, the almighty stoner-rock guitar god on "Dragonfly Pie." You even get Malkmus the folk-rock mystic on the 10-minute title track, which is shaped like a multisong Grateful Dead jam.
It helps that the band is his strongest post-Pavement outfit yet, a half-male, half female outfit that includes new member Janet Weiss, formerly of the great Sleater-Kinney and one of the most thrilling drummers in rock, especially live. The music sounds less tossed off than in the past, or at least tossed off in a more studious way, since making music sound tossed off is Malkmus' stock in trade. Maybe he's trying to impress his band mates. Or maybe, like Dylan and plenty of other dudes, he's just trying to escape the trap of being the same guy he was 10 years ago.